BY any gauge, education in Britain has changed dramatically since Margaret Thatcher came to office nine years ago. At first glance, the prime minister's agenda for school reform reads as if chalked on the same blackboard as President Reagan's. It lists greater choice for families, more autonomy for individual schools through various kinds of local management and budgeting plans, and extensive testing to guarantee that schools are doing their job. And it includes a rock-solid faith that a heavy dose of competition among schools for students will result in greater diversity and academic excellence in a society that is still very class conscious.
But the British education reforms go much deeper than their American counterparts. A radical reorganization of schooling has occurred.
The prime minister can point to a number of specific changes: Twenty percent of all British children now attend denominational schools underwritten with public money. Students may attend schools in districts other than their own (inter-district transfers) with money following from their home district. The creation of ``assisted places'' funding enables 22,000 students to attend nongovernment, independent schools at state expense. Parents sit in nearly half the local governor's positions for Britain's 27,000 schools. Twenty City Technology Colleges now exist with a curriculum centered on themes of mathematics, science, computers, and technology. Each is funded fully by the national government.
At stake, say prominent educators who agree - or disagree - with the Tory agenda, is a struggle for the entrepreneurial heart of the next generation.
Kenneth Baker, the secretary of state for education and science, told the Monitor that what's radical about the government's proposals is: ``We are introducing competition into provision of a public service with no cost to the user.''
Further sweeping legislation will be proposed in the current term of Parliament:
A proposal to allow all schools to ``opt out'' of the local education authority (the equivalent of a local school district in the United States) and become ``grant maintained'' (funded directly by the national government in London) if a majority of parents at the school so vote.
Construction of a nationwide core curriculum linked to national tests to be given at ages 7, 11, 14, and 16. The national curriculum would prescribe 80 percent of what a student must learn in math, science, languages (including English), and technology. The remaining 20 percent would be electives.
Dissolution of the Inner London Education Authority. This reform is seen as the most politically partisan of the government's steps. Besides being the largest in the country, this particular local education authority is a stronghold of Labour support and solidly opposed to the transformation of British society Mrs. Thatcher is intent upon.
Further devolution of funding and management to the individual school site for parents and administrators.
And given the 100-plus vote advantage that Conservatives hold in Parliament, chances are good to excellent that each proposal in part or in whole will become law by next February.
A number of key differences must be kept in mind when discussing British education in comparison with schooling in the US. Despite a tradition that educa-tion is primarily a local matter, Local Education Authorities (LEAs), analogous to local school boards in the US, have no constitutional guarantees. In the US, the 50 states are the major and sole constitutional lawmaking bodies in education.
The national government is the nexus of education policy in Britain. It plays a dominant role in school finance. Nearly 56 percent of all funds spent on schools flow from the central government (compared with 6 percent from Washington). And with only 104 LEAs (compared with some 15,300 local school districts in the US), school governance is simpler and more centralized in Britain.
As one would expect, there are strong objections to the proposed reforms. There is little research that supports and much that opposes many of the government's reforms at either the elementary and secondary level or in higher education, says Denis Lawton, director of the Institute of Education at the University of London. ``It has been ideologically driven'' at the elementary and secondary level, he says, and is little more than a shortsighted policy - ``value-for-money driving contraction in higher education.''
There is a fairly wide consensus on the core program of the proposed reforms, with some exception held for testing seven-year-olds, says Peter Mortimore, professor of education at the University of Lancaster and, until recently, assistant director of the Inner London Education Authority. ``The idea of a national curriculum is workable,'' he says. Britain is the only European country that does not have a centralized curriculum, and this has been seen as a deficit in education circles both within and without the government.
But one of Dr. Mortimore's greatest objections - echoed throughout the education establishment at all levels - is that from the very outset of the Thatcher regime, the reforms have been unilateral and partisan. ``There is no dialogue, no questioning of these reform ideas at all,'' by any credible cross section of the public, he says.
According to Dr. Lawton, what is worse, and what will finally call into question whether or not the reforms will be effective is that teachers by and large were not consulted. One can applaud efforts by this government to include parents and business groups in ways never before tried, he says, but one cannot excuse the neglect of the people who will finally be in the classroom teaching.
Bruce S. Cooper, now with the University of London Institute of Education and on leave from the Fordham University School of Education in New York, says that it is ``too early yet to tell how long the Thatcher revolution will last and whether it will succeed in widening the educational opportunities, or ultimately, the class structure of Great Britain.''
``Change is likely to be more effective if it is consumer-driven as opposed to regulation-driven,'' Dr. Cooper says. He sees two strategies in particular that have been very effective for the Thatcher government over three terms of office: They are ``to pass legislation which gives more statutory rights to parents and school governors, and to modify the financial interrelationships among national government, local school authorities, and separate schools in a manner that gives individual schools more control of their budgets and requires that local authorities compete for central funds for certain programs,'' he says.
The prime minister, a former secretary of education herself, has never lost sight of the ``importance of [individual] schools as the appropriate site for education reform,'' says Cooper.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.