Future imperfect

If the Government wins a second term, what should its next educational manifesto contain? Simon Midgley puts the question

Diehard free marketeer Kevin McNeany, chairman of Nord Anglia, has no doubts. The time has come, he says, for schools to throw off the mantle of local authority control and start behaving as autonomous institutions funded directly by government.

"It would give a greater sense of individual identity and purpose. It would help them become self-confident and self-sustaining. It would remove them from the blame culture, where it is easy to blame somebody else if the school is not doing well.

"If they had the funding and could therefore procure all the services themselves, they would stand or fall by their own efforts."

This is an idea whose time may well be coming. John Baker, deputy chairman of Celltech, also thinks the Government should take a long, hard look at this idea, especially in relation to secondary schools. Some really intensive work also needs to take place in mapping out what the classroom of 2010 is going to look like, he says.

With distance learning, the internet, digital television and broadband telephony, the way we teach and learn will be revolutionised.

Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors, says it is vital for the Government to sustain its assault on illiteracy and innumeracy but thinks it has, perhaps, become a bit initiative-barmy and should now allow the changes to bed down.

Bert Clough, senior education and training adviser at the Trades Union Congress, would like to see statutory entitlement to free education and training so that individuals can acquire level 3 (A-level) qualifications at any stage in their working lives.

This, he adds, might require some form of paid educational leave. Level 3 qualifications are what the TUC considers necessary to secure employment in the new labour market.

Trade unions should also have more rights to be informed, consulted and involved in negotiations over skills and learning acquisition in the workplace.

More thought also needs to be given to the training and career development of further education teachers who will have to be flexible in responding to a wider range of learners in future.

Shirley Woolley, a director of Frederick Woolley Ltd, which manufactures components for the automotive industry in Birmingham, says some employers are concerned that many young people are wrongly encouraged to stay on at school post 16, when they would be more suited to work-based, modern apprenticeship training.

Equally, some graduates were more equipped to work with large firms than they were with small companies.

Mike McCann, chairman of the Merseyside-based National Education Business Partnership Network, believes that more sophisticated and better-resourced education business link activity is key to raising standards.

Baker added that the transition from primary to secondary school was crucial and that too many children slipped back after changing schools.

A future educational agenda, he added, should capitalise on the improvements being made in primary schools and ensure this slippage is prevented in future.


* John Baker, deputy chairman, Celltech plc: "I think the Government has had a very strong three years. Most of the educational initiatives seem to be well directd and there is a lot of very powerful thinking capability behind David Blunkett and his team.

"I have seen the team in action at close quarters and they are very impressive, very dedicated, hard working and sympathetic to the problems teachers still have, but they are determined to get it right.

"I think pretty good marks so far. As ever, a lot of the actual proof of the merits of their policies will be two or three years down the road. These initiatives cannot be delivered overnight."

* Rudi Plaut, chairman of Northmace, a Cardiff-based engineering design company: "An enormous number of connections between the brain cells is possible. What is important in the early years is that those connections are made - not that we learn any particular bit of knowledge.

"Then we have the tools with which to learn fast-changing facts. We need imagination, good working brains and excitement about the world we live in.

"Britain has one per cent of the world's population. Our only future is by being the Harrods of the world; the specialists with more imagination, more new products and more new ways of doing things. If our adults are simply as good at spelling as the Japanese or Chinese, then we are lost. We have got to have imaginations that are better than those in regimented societies because we have given our youngsters freedom and excitement."

* Kevin McNeany, chairman of Nord Anglia, the private education services group: "The Government should experiment and give the private sector the opportunity to run schools, either through a Private Finance Initiative or through a different, new kind of Fresh Start programme.

"Why not let the private sector build the school, employ the teachers and deliver the curriculum under contract to the LEA or a governing body? Such a school would be of considerable excellence and in great demand. It would raise the standards of education in that LEA, not just in what it delivered, but also via the competition with other schools and the spur it would give to improve the quality of their product."

* Robert Ingram, human resources director at Cap Gemini, an IT services company with 8,000 staff:

"A lot of people have difficulty in making the transition from dying manufacturing industries into the new IT industries. That is an area where the Government can probably help. What would sadden us all is for people in their 40s and 50s to be excluded from the new jobs, not because they don't have the raw capability, but because they find it too difficult a step to make. What they need is help in making the step to working as a call agent in a call centre, through to working in computer operations."

* Dr Geraldine Kenny Wallace, managing director and vice chancellor of BEA Systems Virtual University:

"Over the last three years, the high profile given to education, training and skills has been very helpful.

"Education is at the root of not only intellectual life and competitiveness, but also economic competitiveness and never more so than today. However, I am concerned about whether we have a sufficient commitment to research and development. The USA is building up its Ramp;D reserves again across the board, but are we doing the same?

"Are we making sure we have people working on the frontier ideas and leading-edge opportunities here to benefit not only the individual organisations but our society?"

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