Germany is defeating us in much more than Euro 96

Michael Heseltine's Skills Audit shows that England and Wales compare well with other countries (except Germany) in lifetime learning and in education and training levels 4 (higher diploma and degree) and 5 (degree and professional qualification). The real deficiency lies with young people and their lack of achievement at levels 2 (GCSEequivalent) and 3 (A-level). Here we lag behind all the other countries in the survey.

Clearly it is time for further education to don its white hats, sound the advance and gallop to the rescue. We have only to see that our teachers are properly trained and that our classrooms are large enough, and we can take on all comers. Our comprehensive colleges will race clever students with excellent GCSE scores, headed for university and graduate status. Close behind will be those who need a year or two with us to reach level 2, but who will then progress to level 3 or beyond.

In the evenings we shall help adults who missed out on this wave of learning; and on Saturdays employees who can't be spared from the workplace during the week will line up for the information technology classes which will earn them work or promotion. We'll ensure that workplace learning is assessed to quality standards, and when companies want to take on this role for themselves we'll train their employees as assessors and internal verifiers.

But hang on a minute. We're already doing those things. If it is working, the Skills Audit wouldn't look so bad. What has gone wrong? Who nobbled the cavalry's horses?

There are several factors, most of them based on the fact that our masters' left hands don't seem to know what their right hands are doing. And vice versa of course. There's the gold standard A-level, the benchmark for all the other equally estimable qualifications. This is designed to lead on to levels 4 and 5, and so it does, even if the rate of progression is likely to slow because of the cuts in university funding. The ethos behind it, however, is not consistent with the need to expand achievement, since the acceptability of its standard is judged by the number of candidates who drop out on the way, or fail the examination.

Those candidates prevent the necessary expansion of achievement at level 3. Why do they start A-level courses if they lack the ability or stamina to complete them successfully? Which brings us to the second point.

The alternative pathways to level 3 for young people are general national vocational qualifications or national vocational qualifications. Many students might prefer to gain their qualifications while working, if they could find work, and if the work they found offered them NVQs. But they frequently can't do this, because employers themselves don't reckon NVQs are worth the time lost in delivering them.

And as for GNVQ, we all know it's not perfect. But many students who would enjoy it and gain a great deal from it don't embark on it because it has received a consistently hostile press from day one. The qualification set up to give more young people access to levels 2 and 3 has been rubbished by academics and chief inspectors. As a parent wouldn't you think they knew what they were talking about?

Next, we cannot avoid looking at funding. In December we were told that the colleges spent more educating their young people than schools - a statement incomprehensible to those of us who look back on the historic funding of 199394 with yearning. Now it seems that some important factors were not included in the calculations, and that schools are better funded than colleges. The cost of assisted places, of course, has not been mentioned.

Which seems a really good time to tell grant-maintained schools (probably the most expensive of those under consideration) that they can have a sixth form if they like. They will be able to offer only a restricted curriculum; they will specialise in A-levels; the able, who are doing alright anyway, will get more of the available funding, and the less able will be shunted off to the colleges and receive less funding.

Back at the ranch, the colleges have their own problems. We want more and more young people to stay in education pushing up their levels of achievement, don't we? What a good time to curb expansion by reducing the value of the additional units and, it is rumoured, in two years' time to pay for nothing at all for units achieved beyond the target. Since achieving the target is now to be exactly 100 per cent, colleges who fall below will lose funding, and colleges who exceed targets will lose money. The goalposts can be seen retreating like triffids over the horizon.

Finally, of course, there is a need for extra resourcing, not just maintenance of the current structures. Sir Ron's new diploma will not see the light of day if we can't afford the funding for extra modern language staffing and equipment. And whereas in France 16-plus students study for 30 hours a week for three years, in England and Wales they study for 15 hours a week for two years. It isn't surprising we don't do as well as France. It's amazing we have made the progress we have. Yet the necessity for making efficiency gains points us towards teaching courses with fewer hours in a shorter period. Only more resourcing would enable us to extend our hours and perhaps improve our success rates.

It is vital that we are given the wherewithal to improve skills. Our competitiveness with other countries is too important for us to enter the race with our legs tied. Let's move away from the blame culture towards a new mood of working together towards what has to be a shared aim.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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