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16 October 2008

Time for a purge of Labour’s weaker policies

By Aloysius McDowell

Beyond the white noise of the economic situation, Gordon Brown’s government has been forced into two important retreats. His plans to extend the period terror suspects can be held without charge to 42 days have been shelved after defeat by the House of Lords. And the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, has been forced to drop Sats tests for 14-year-olds, following this year’s marking fiasco.

Mr Brown should be grateful that he has been relieved of these two redundant policies. We have consistently argued that “42 days” was an arbitrary measure, brought in to prove that the new leader was not a soft touch on terror. The figure was arrived at without consultation. It was opposed by senior members of the police and the judiciary and by the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald.

School tests serve a useful diagnostic purpose in helping teachers monitor the progress children are making against expectations. However, they should never have been used to judge schools as a whole and set them against one another, nor to distort teaching into a test-passing routine. When used in this way they are a hugely expensive exercise in stating the obvious. Schools with a middle-class intake perform better than those with a more challenging set of problems posed by young refugees, children from low-income families and those with special needs.

The chaos of Sats marking over the summer and the failure of the contractor ETS Europe to deliver should also act as a warning to the government that proper oversight is of the first importance when such essential parts of the public sector are handed over to private companies.

In other times both U-turns would have merited extensive coverage and comment, but the Prime Minister is blessed by the turbulent times in which he operates. With this in mind, we urge him to take the opportunity to look again at other flawed policies. Next in line might be the renewal of Trident and the introduction of ID cards, whose cost cannot be justified in such straitened times.

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