As well as the absence of rigour, there is the presence of something much more damaging. There is no abbreviation for it - and it is difficult to find the right word for it. I can best describe it as an amoeba-like force that seems to smother large parts of the educational establishment. Its impact, to misquote St Francis, is to ensure that where there is excellence we shall bring mediocrity, where there is clarity we shall bring fudge, where there is rigour we will deliver a never-ending woolliness.
Occasionally, I sense that some in the Government understand that "standards plus autonomy" is the answer - and that they must slay the amoeba in the process. But when the Government has needed to act, Tony Blair and four secretaries of state for education have been either inept, incapable or both. On discipline, they have failed to give heads the absolute authority to expel unruly pupils. On standards, they have colluded with dumbing down and they still won't give a straight answer on the future of A-levels. And even in areas where they profess a belief in rigour - Ruth Kelly's support for synthetic phonics in teaching literacy, for example - we are still waiting for yet another review to get under way, rather than seeing concrete action.
Meanwhile, more than one fifth of children leave primary school unable to read properly. The Education Secretary can hand out all the goody bags with all the books W H Smith can muster, but it's no use if large numbers of children aren't taught to read properly. Where the Government needs to let go, it simply cannot bring itself to do it
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- Susan Godsland
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