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In a froth over education and its benefits

DOES EDUCATION MATTER? Myths about education and economic growth. By Alison Wolf. Penguin pound;8.99

Watch out if you intend to browse this book over a cappuccino in your local bookshop's cafe. The author has little sympathy for an increasingly global education system that produces over-qualified baristas - low-skill jobs exist, probably always will and don't require a degree in chemistry.

But it's less you, the teacher or other educational professional, and more the policy-maker or politician, that Alison Wolf has in her sights. This book sets out to attack not education itself, but what is now accepted wisdom:that more education automatically equals greater economic prosperity; that a direct link exists between the education of a population and economic growth. It is a theme politicians return to constantly, and Wolf argues that it translates into "an enthusiasm for yet more education spending - and yet the balance of evidence is clearly against them".

Wolf delivers a powerful critique of this conventional wisdom, writing:

"One argument after another falls apart on closer examination: there is no clear indication at all that the UK, or any other developed country, is spending below some critical level, or that pumping more money into education will guarantee even half a per cent a year's extra growth."

While Wolf systematically demolishes economic myths, politicians, policy-makers, spin doctors, and the Confederation of British Industry, she celebrates the contribution of learning to the individual, the increasingly hard work of teachers and lecturers, the sanctity of scholarship and universities' encouragement of science, innovation and manufacturing.

The most compelling part of the book is contained in three chapters that subject vocational education, training and the role of business in education to the same analysis.

Here Wolf is at her very best, with a withering critique of governmental and business attempts to support vocational education and workplace training in the name of the nation's economic progress. This is required reading for those still scratching their heads at the prospect of a GCSE in "engineering".

Her deconstruction deals not just with the alphabet soup of the UK's vocational provision over time, but also draws attention to the surprising failure of the vocational path elsewhere in the developed world.

With the impressive grasp of someone writing about her primary field of research, she argues that the real failure has been market-led - young people themselves have rejected vocational education and increasingly voted with their feet for the more flexible and rewarding academic route.

The colossal expansion of higher education comes in for similar treatment in the final two chapters. Here the argument is similar: "There is no economic imperative justifying ever greater enrolments." But such is the personal, familial and political commitment to expansion that even Wolf says winning her argument is irrelevant as "nothing can stop, let alone reverse, the stampede into higher education".

Wolf understands that her analysis is, as the publisher's blurb proclaims, "controversial", and her overriding aim is to make us all examine more rigorously just what benefits education can deliver.

She even goes so far as to suggest that "the belief in education for growth runs deep and wide beyond our political classes, replacing socialism as the great secular faith of our age". I can see Estelle Morris spluttering into her latte.

Richard Margrave is a former education policy adviser to the Labour Party

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