London — The Thatcher government is preparing to launch a series of reforms in Britain's schools, including the imposition of a national curriculum for the first time in the country's history. A series of consultation papers, outlining the proposed changes, was published last July, and since then many groups with a direct interest in education have been considering them. Comments on the consultation documents were to have been in the hands of the education secretary, Kenneth Baker, by Sept. 30. An education bill, embodying his proposals, will be put to Parliament in November.
The government's education reforms promise to change the face of schooling in Britain. They will place the emphasis on higher educational attainment, more uniform standards across the country, and greater freedom of choice for parents in selecting schools for their children.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (herself a former education secretary under Edward Heath) and Mr. Baker are convinced that some of Britain's problems can be traced to a failure in recent years to ensure that schools set high standards and offer pupils truly modern options. Final details of the reforms must await the consultation process and Baker's final drafting of the legislation, but three themes dominate the government's planning:
A national curriculum will be set to ensure that children are taught 10 main subjects. Pupils will take tests at ages 7, 11, 14, and 16.
Local authorities - currently the key arbiters in controlling education arrangements - will have less power. For example, the government wants parents to have more choice in deciding which schools their children should go to in a particular area. Local authorities may now make such decisions.
Schools will be able to opt out of local-authority control if a majority of parents and the school governors so decide.
Thatcher and Baker may have to battle hard to ensure passage of the planned education reform bill. Most parents in Britain favor radical changes in the system. But teachers' unions, which have been at loggerheads with the government over pay, believe the plan will be too heavily centralized.
Although in continental Europe the idea of a national curriculum is well implanted, local interest groups in Britain have traditionally struggled to retain control over what subjects are offered to children.
Some school head teachers are nervous about the planned new law. They know that, if the local authorities' grip weakens, their own management skills will be placed under strain.