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Equality by the autumn, please

Stephen Yeo, retiring principal of Ruskin College, says Labour has a chance in a lifetime to sort out lifelong learning. Anne Horner talks to him.

Social history man Stephen Yeo is determined to go out with a bang when he retires as principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, after eight years.

As he prepares to clear his desk at the adult education college where deputy prime minister John Prescott studied, he has a now-or-never sense that the Labour Government can modernise the British education system. As an expert on the social history of the Labour movement, and a passionate believer in equality, it is a moment he has been waiting for all his life.

Now 58, he has thrown down the gauntlet in a letter to the committee tasked with forming a blueprint for a lifelong learning society - Professor Bob Fryer's national advisory committee on adult learning.

He says that in the months leading up to the publication of this autumn's White Paper on lifetime learning there is a chance to address what he describes as the "education muddle" in Britain.

He wants the White Paper to recommend radically new arrangements for post-compulsory learning. He believes the further and higher education divide should be broken down. In fact the term "higher education" with its hierarchical overtones should be abandoned. By doing so, he believes, the Government could "at one stroke end the still-rife talk about real degrees versus Mickey Mouse qualifications, real universities versus unserious ones".

New Labour's challenge is to restructure the education system to create a fair-for-all, comprehensive, inclusive system which abandons the elitist structures which he believes have stunted Britain's economic development.

Britain, he says, has limited itself by "the ancient habit of educating for social difference. Somehow we have got to stop educating for social difference and start learning for economic and social competence."

He welcomes the sentiments of Helena Kennedy's recent report into widening participation in further education, while acknowledging ruefully that it "has resource implications".

He does not quake at last week's Dearing report's strictures on the abolition of tuition fees, as long as there will be provision for disadvantaged students.

He is an idealist and lifelong socialist whose ideas have been shaped by his own - comparatively privileged - experience of the education system.

His mother, Joan Yeo, was active in the Women's Institute movement and helped to found the WI's Denman College in Marcham, Oxfordshire. His father worked in a wholesale drapery business and scraped together the money to send his three children to independent schools.

Stephen Yeo was sent to Eastbourne College, an independent school. He then went on to secure a first-class degree in history from Pembroke College, Oxford.

"Mine was not a particularly privileged school. I did not want to go to it, I said so at the time. I grew up in a village in Berkshire and I could not see why some children went off to school on trains and others would go to school on bicycles."

He proudly recounts that he moved a resolution at the 1963 Labour party conference calling for the abolition of public schools.

As principal of Ruskin, where the entry benchmark is having as few qualifications as possible, he has tried to act on his beliefs. But he has faced the tricky task of modernising the institution, set up in 1899, shaking off its "macho" cloth-cap trade union image while preserving the trade union links.

A recent Further Education Funding Council inspection suggests there is still some room for improvement. The college was awarded a grade 3 for management indicating that it had as many weaknesses as strengths.

But Stephen Yeo is proud of his achievements, particularly the feminisation of the college. Women's studies have been introduced and his management team includes four women deans who he describes as "very competent and visionary", then adds that he hopes that does not sound patronising.

He says: "Ruskin was a bit behind the times. It needed to catch up with its own reputation. I think we have done that."

Responsibility for steering the college will fall after September to the acting principal Eva Barnes until a permanent replacement is appointed.

The successor will inherit an institution where change has reflected the metamorphosis of the labour movement.

Who will take up the gauntlet? The replacement has yet to be announced, but he thinks it would be great if the next principal of new Ruskin were to be a woman . . .

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