Britain's Conservative secretary of education has radical plans

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BOTH Britain and the United States are charting new directions for their education systems. Buffeted by widespread dissatisfaction with poorly performing schools and low student academic achievement, policymakers in each country seek to link sweeping education reforms to greater national economic productivity. But unlike the US, where 50 states are the major and sole constitutional lawmaking bodies in education, the national government is the nexus of education policy in Britain. Nearly 56 percent of all funds spent on schools comes from the central government (compared to 6.5 percent from Washington). By 1990 it will be 75 percent. And with only 104 local education authorities (LEAs, analogous to 15,300 local school districts in the US), school governance is much more a top-down affair in Britain.

The difference is significant in a way that is unthinkable in the US. One can point to a single individual in the driver's seat for school policies. That individual is Kenneth Baker, secretary of state for education and science.

In a wide-ranging interview in his office Secretary Baker discussed with the Monitor his current plans for reforming British schools as well as his views on related education topics in the US.

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``The whole thrust of both our [nations'] policies is to improve the quality of education,'' Mr. Baker says. But ``we are doing this in a rather different way from you.''

``We've brought education as an issue right back to the center of the stage. It's always been somewhere on the stage in the past, or lurking in the wings, but now it is center stage,'' Baker says. His Conservative Party has a majority of 100-plus seats in the current session of Parliament, giving the Tories sufficient votes to pass most if not all of their school reform agenda.

``We are having a national curriculum, and national testing,'' he says. The intent is ``to introduce some rigor, some benchmarks, so that the teachers know what to teach to [so that] the children know what to learn.''

Currently, the British have a single national test at age 16. Under the government's new plan, nationwide testing will occur at ages 7, 11, 14, and 16. For the most part, a national curriculum and testing program meets with widespread approval in Britain, as it is the only European country without a centralized course of study. Required subjects will be math, science, language, and history.

``We are galvanizing the power of parents,'' says Baker. He plans to give greater power to headmasters, moving budgets right down to the school level rather than LEAs.

The devolution of management and budgeting to the schools stems from the Tory philosophy that if schools are to improve their standards, they must be responsive to parental demands, as well as compete for students. This can happen only if the schools possess greater autonomy, he says.

In what is seen as the most radical proposal of his tenure, Baker will offer schools the choice of seceding from their own LEA. ``We are going to allow schools to `opt out' if a majority of the parents vote to do so,'' he says.

Under this plan, any of the 27,500 schools in Britain could, through a majority vote of governing bodies and parents, file to leave (or `opt out' of) LEA control and become independent, ``grant maintained'' schools. Funding would come directly from the national - not the local - government.

The grant proposal must be seen, Baker says, as a means of releasing good schools from the weight of unsupportive (and what critics of the plan say are left-Labour Party controlled) local authorities. He sees opting out as making room for as much diversity as possible.

But by far, what he sees as his most important reform is his effort ``to reinject back into schools not just a better education, but a greater understanding of life, and the role of individuals in society ... some understanding of the difference between right and wrong, one for another,'' he says.

Baker makes a point of praising his US counterpart, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who has also championed ``character'' issues. In particular, Baker says he will try to borrow from Mr. Bennett's example of publishing good, solid information about schools so parents and local officials can make informed decisions. He gives high marks to the US for its magnet school programs. He is considering a British version of magnet schools that would also provide quality in education and give choice to parents.

When asked about the charges that teachers feel they were not consulted on many of the reforms he has proposed, that they have not been treated as professionals even though it is they who carry out the policies in classrooms, Baker answers, ``We're getting a lot of support from the public. [My critics] have an army out there of professional educationists, spending a lot of time researching each other - a symbiotic relationship.''

``I'm often accused of being Napoleonic.... We are trying to make schools much more independent as institutions. One mustn't underestimate the capacity of the system to regulate itself, because you are giving parents a choice,'' says Baker.

It is quite safe to assume that parents, if they go to a school and see what they like or don't like, will take an active role in correcting problems or encouraging continued successful efforts, he says.

``I cannot give self-respect to teachers, it has to come from within, from the profession itself. But I can provide for the profession, training, in-service on a scale unprecedented, with career ladders,'' he says. If some want to walk out on their classes and go on strike (referring to a long-lasting industrial dispute the first two years he was in office), then ``they are sacrificing the respect which they are trying to earn from the rest of the country.''

Ironically, Baker had to defend his proposed national curriculum against complaints from members of his own party. Concern surfaced that he was being too prescriptive, mandating courses for 80 percent of a student's day, thereby leaving little time to study the classics. He debated his foes on the floor of Parliament, in Latin.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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