This month, at least a million and a half young people are taking A-levels or AS-levels. Hundred of thousands more, from the age of seven upwards, are sitting other examinations. This is the most tested generation in history, its progress through childhood and adolescence punctuated by targets, key stages, attainment levels, qualifications. The entire education system is now run on the same principles that underlay Stalin's and Mao's five-year plans: set some arbitrary target from the centre (doubled wheat output or 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to achieve a particular level of literacy) and use it to command mass obedience. Just as Russia's peasants venerated icons and tolerated cockroaches, so Britain's teachers (it was said) worshipped the sandpit and the Wendy House, and tolerated too much play and underachievement. Whitehall knew better: its national curriculum, its tests, its league-tables would make teachers buckle down and keep their eyes on the essentials. This has not been a party political project - indeed, Jack Straw, when he was shadow education secretary in the 1980s, insisted that he had advocated the national curriculum long before the Tories introduced it. Both main parties, whatever their views on economic matters, have embraced command-and-control for the schools.
Has it worked? Astonishingly, no study was ever established to track a cohort of children through school to discover the all-round effects of this gigantic experiment. But some clues are trickling through from smaller-scale research. One study, using a reading test that has remained unchanged for more than a decade, found that there has been no real increase in children's literacy levels. If they are improving at the tests the government sets, it is because the tests are getting easier or because schools are getting better at teaching the narrow, specialised techniques needed to pass them. A combination of the two is the most likely explanation. According to research commissioned by the government itself, the extent of cramming for tests in primary schools threatens to squeeze out history, geography, music and art. Worse, there is growing evidence that teachers cheat, altering children's answers, giving them nods and winks while they are taking the tests, drilling them beforehand on questions the school knows will come up. None of this is in the least surprising. A school's survival, and therefore teachers' job prospects, depends on test results; the pressure from parents, desperate for their little geniuses to reach the next attainment level, is intense. In any case, many teachers believe that the whole edifice of testing is monstrous and anti-educational. The staffrooms treat the Department for Education and the quangos that run testing with the same fatalistic derision as the Russians treated the Soviet politburo and its planning agency, Gosplan.
The idea that schools needed a centrally determined framework and that they needed reminding of their basic functions - to ensure adequate literacy and numeracy - was a sound one. So was the idea that they needed some check on their performance. What went wrong was the sheer scale and detail of the enterprise, and the extent to which schools have come to be judged (with minimal allowances for local difficulties, such as the pupils' home backgrounds) on their test scores, by both parents and government. One does not need to be a devotee of Rousseau or a believer in the nobility of the savage child to think that there must be more to education than this. If all schooling is geared to tests, children have no time to reflect or explore, teachers no time to create excitement or curiosity. Ministers may protest that this is not the intention, but it is undoubtedly the effect. They show few signs of grasping the law of unintended consequences. Thus, David Miliband, the new schools minister (and former head of Tony Blair's policy unit), in an otherwise heartwarming address to headteachers this month, insisted on more "reform". He was referring to ministers' determination to introduce proper performance-related pay to schools, so that teachers no longer get automatic annual increments. This may or may not be a worthy aspiration (schools object because, they say, their success depends on self-effacing teamwork), but the point is that it multiplies the paperwork and the bureaucracy. Since children's test scores are the most easily measurable aspect of a teacher's performance, they will come to play an even more important role in the school.
Stripped of the capacity to manipulate the economy - by the global markets and the rules of the European Union - politicians can't keep their hands off the schools. They should relax the pressure, allow education to breathe again and let children enjoy childhood again.
Bath and breakfast
This World Cup, held in the Far East, casts new light on the nation's morning habits. For example, our columnist Hunter Davies reveals - to the shock of one reader (see Letters, page 36) and, it is understood, to the embarrassment of his wife, a distinguished novelist - that he uses the same bathwater as his spouse. The Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart, we learn, eats a breakfast of bacon, two sausages, eggs, toast, tomatoes, mushrooms and champagne plus vodka and orange (though not, one must assume, every day). Most interesting is the BBC commentator John Motson, who advised us at 8.14am, during the England-Nigeria game, to "put the eggs on" and, during the England-Argentina game, played at lunchtime, to pour "another glass of wine". One fears that Mr Motson is not as demotic as he tries to sound, and that he has an uncertain and outdated grasp of the habits of most armchair football watchers.