Time to let schools go free range

One label matters at Brymore School and one does not. The important label is the organic one that appears on meat and milk produced in the Somerset school's fully functioning farm.

The state boarding school is justifiably proud of the work its teenage pupils do, getting up at 6.30am to muck out its livestock and milk the cows (see page 12). Indeed, the beef and lamb its farm produces are of such high quality that they are too expensive to serve in the school's kitchens.

But last year Brymore gained another label - one that was entirely unhelpful. Despite the excellent vocational opportunities it offers its all-boy intake, it was designated a National Challenge school because of its raw GCSE results.

The creation of that label for "under-performing" secondaries was the Government's worst act of meddling in education during 2008. It epitomised ministers' perceptions that test statistics mattered more than the work schools do with pupils in their own contexts.

In a single, heavy-handed move, ministers publicly labelled 638 secondaries failures. They later attempted to back-track. But you don't need to work in a farm school to know the dangers of spooking the cattle or responding after a horse has bolted.

In 2009, ministers will turn their attention to primary schools. But this time they have a chance to get it right.

Positive signs are already emerging that the Government has learnt from some of its mistakes with the National Challenge, and is keen that the primary version accentuates support, not threats. Early indications suggest a more holistic approach may be taken to choosing the schools that take part, rather than relying solely on raw test scores.

Ministers must resist the temptation to undo any progress by boasting that they are "getting tough on failing primaries".

They also need to seize the once-in-a-generation chance they will be offered this year by Sir Jim Rose's review of the primary curriculum. His final findings, along with Sir Robin Alexander's independent report on primary education, will hopefully point the way towards a system that gives teachers greater freedom and cuts through the clutter. Primary teachers are frustrated with cooping pupils up and force-feeding them test material. This is the year to let schools go free range.

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