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Did we really need more reform, Estelle?

overnment consultation papers have a problem. It matters not whether they are Green, White or read. They must appear substantial. That usually means new initiatives - good, bad and indifferent.

This is surely what happened with last week's Green Paper on 14-19 education, Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards. The paper was promised in the Schools Achieving Success White Paper last year. Once promised, it had to be delivered.

In Labour's first term, ministers promised an early White Paper on lifelong learning. When The Learning Age appeared, the legislative logjam left it distinctly Green, and with not a lot to say.

The distinction between Green and White papers has blurred. Traditionally a Green Paper was consultative, while a White one meant legislation. Yet major changes do not always need legislation: performance-related pay for teachers came on the back of a Green Paper.

Unfortunately, this latest paper seems unsure what it aims to achieve. Policy was largely settled in last autumn's excellent White Paper. Teachers, unions and academics may have long agreed that we should regard 14-19 education as a distinct phase. But there the consensus ends. Some argue for the abolition of GCSEs tomorrow. Others would prefer stability after years of relentless reform. Labour has long accepted that able pupils should take GCSEs early. In truth the paper simply extends this approach a little.

When you have a scene-setting paper, everyone wants a piece of the action. In last week's paper, there's a nod to the Chancellor's enthusiasm for "level two" skills. And Number 10's wish for an A* is accommodated. But when the sum of these parts does not add up, it can backfire. That is particularly true when some commentators ignore your basic secondary-school strategy and focus on the latest offering, as happened last week.

The fact is that 90 per cent of policy this term was already settled. Another major consultation was not needed.

White and Green papers can set the direction of major reforms (David Blunkett's Excellence in Schools set out New Labour's approach to education well). But there have been plenty with not much to say. The 1996 Self-Government for Schools White Paper dreamed of a grammar school in every town. Yet it merely served to show how tired the Tories had become.

Elsewhere in Whitehall, more effort seems to go into thinking up new names for papers than their content. There is not much difference between the Department for Trade and Industry's Creating the Enterprise Centre of Europe (Heseltine, 1996) and Opportunity for All in a World of Change (Byers, 2001).

Every minister wants a printed legacy. Yet, sometimes they would be better developing their main ideas in greater detail and with serious consultation.

In this latest consultation, the Government could have developed its programme of vocational education. Officials and advisers could have properly laid the groundwork to answer charges that such learning is second best.

There could also have been careful examination of the content of the new vocational GCSEs, as well as the reduced compulsory core at key stage 4. The new GCSEs do not need to replicate GNVQ titles. More named apprenticeships could have been proposed - although those who think leisure and tourism GCSEs useless know little of today's labour market.

That way there would have been no A-level "distinction" before world-class tests had even started. The matriculation diploma could have waited until the Government was ready to move to a full baccalaureate. Plans to let bright youngsters skip GCSEs would not have been released on the very day day parity of esteem between the academic and vocational was being promoted. The Sun's premature obituary for the GCSE would not have been written.

I hope ministers draw one big conclusion from last week. It is time for a moratorium on education Green and White papers. Instead, they should consult properly on specific policies. They have published their ideas, but must get the detail right if schools are to deliver.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Employment, 1997-2001

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