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Crusade to end under-achievement

Jeremy Sutcliffe opens a two-page report on the North of England conference and the perennial problem of money. "You can't have a cut-price crusade. You are either committed or you're not." These words from Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, went to the nub of a problem facing all politicians struggling to seize the educational agenda at the start of what could be a general election year.

He was responding to the latest Government initiative to raise standards in primary schools by setting up 20 literacy and numeracy centres, at a cost of Pounds 5 million over each of the next five years.

"It's a timid response to a conference the whole thrust of which has been to do something which will make a real difference in raising standards," he said.

The conference, focusing this year on the problems of underachievement, began with a sombre emphasis on statistics by former civil servant Sir Geoffrey Holland: the United Kingdom's workforce down three places to 24th in the international skills league; an education system ranked 35th; an economy ranked 18th.

While Britain compared well with other countries in terms of university degrees, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of its workforce had no vocational qualification, compared with Germany (26 per cent), the Netherlands (35 per cent) and France (53 per cent).

Sir Geoffrey, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education and now vice-chancellor of Exeter University, called for a national "crusade" to restore Britain's competitiveness. He blamed partly "a poor and unreliable vocational training system". But he also criticised a system in which too few people stayed on after 16 and in which attainment was dispiritingly low.

His solution, a revised further and higher education funding system based on a graduate tax, redistribution of spending to boost investment in nursery, primary and inner city schools, and a unified qualifications system, was radical, intended to raise achievement in schools, colleges and universities by 30 per cent in a decade.

Another radical solution was offered by Professor Michael Barber, of London University's Institute of Education, who called for child benefit to be taxed to fund vouchers worth Pounds 200 a year for the parents of the least well-off four million children to provide them with books and study support.

Under his proposal, well-off parents would lose 40 per cent of their benefit - about Pounds 7 for a couple with two children - raising Pounds 1 billion a year. That would be more than enough to finance the Pounds 800 million scheme.

He also wanted a network of 1,000 study support centres for disadvantaged children. The cost, he said, would be under 0.5 per cent of current school expenditure.

Professor Barber's proposals generated considerable interest because he is seen as the chief architect of Labour's new policy on standards, involving tough measures to turn round failing schools.

The future of the welfare state is currently being considered by Labour social security spokesman Chris Smith. But education spokesman David Blunkett described Professor Barber's proposals - which include the idea of taking legal action against parents who fail to attend twice-yearly school meetings - as "interesting".

Mr Blunkett's own conference speech was low-key, preferring to extol the virtues of new technology rather than any new proposals. Prosperity depended on Britain becoming a knowledge-based society, he said. He urged long-term investment in education and training to ensure we did not become "a low-wage, low-tech economy".

With the merger of education and employment under one Government department, politicians of all parties were keen to emphasise the links between education, training and economic performance.

Perhaps for this reason, the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard used much of her speech to extol Britain's record on unemployment (UK 8 per cent, Germany 8.5 per cent, France 11 per cent, Spain 22 per cent) and point out the dangers to jobs of a minimum wage and the European social chapter.

She went on to defend the Government's record, citing what she described as the growing consensus in favour of using rigorous school inspection and performance tables to raise standards.

But there was disappointment among the 500 councillors, education officers, teachers and academics gathered in Gateshead, who believed her main announcement (see page 13) did little to address the scale of underachievement so graphically depicted by her former adviser, Sir Geoffrey.

Mr Blunkett trumped her spending commitment by promising Labour could indeed find the extra Pounds 1 billion over 10 years that Sir Geoffrey said would be needed to carry out his own proposals.

But Labour has yet to reveal how it proposes to fund the extra investment, and it was left to the Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster to make specific spending proposals, namely a 2 per cent tax on employers to boost skills training.

One voice not much in evidence at the conference was that of schools. The gap was filled by Professor Ted Sizer, chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools at Brown University in the United States.

Calling for schools as well as politicians to think radically about ways of improving standards, he said smaller class sizes were vital. Schools must be reorganised so that no teacher taught more than 80 students in a day. "It can and is being done in New York," he said.

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