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A happy marriage?

Other countries have separate education and

employment ministries, but five years ago Britain merged the two. Richard Aldrich considers whether the DFEE has been a success.

IN JULY of this year the Department for Education and Employment will be five years old. No doubt there will be a party in Sanctuary Buildings, perhaps - for the historically minded - even a centenary celebration for the Board of Education, which began life in 1900.

Some of the hopes of 1995 have been realised. Divisions between the worlds of school and work have been reduced, as have divisions between education and training.

The summer of 1999 saw a marked rise in the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 or above in national English and mathematics tests. "Lifelong learning" provides an important new and inclusive ideal, fit to rank with the concepts of "national efficiency" and "competitiveness" at the beginning and end of the 20th century respectively, but with the potential to surpass them both.

Unemployment in the UK is significantly lower than in most major competitor countries. Productivity has increased. Indeed the UK economy is now the fourth largest in the world, having overtaken Italy in 1996 and France in 1999. Only the USA, Japan and Germany are ahead.

Nevertheless, fundamental challenges lie ahead. Although the New Deal has enabled 185,000 young people to move into unsubsidised employment, in some areas fewer than 10 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds in education or training on the New Deal achieve a qualification.

Indeed, the precise relationship between educational achievement and employment levels remains elusive. Today, as in the past, education often serves to keep people out of the labour market rather than prepare them for it. Almost 50,000 of the young people who have left the New Deal to take up employment were claiming benefit again within 13 weeks.

Interestingly, unemployment rates in the UK and USA are half those in France and Germany, whose education systems are considered superior. As events at Rover showed, multinational companies make economic decisions with scant regard for such matters as improved scores at key stage 2.

Since 1995, fusion at the centre has been accompanied by growing confusion at regional and local levels. Turf wars continue as government agencies proliferate, and it remains to be seen whether the proosed new national Learning Skills Council, can work harmoniously with the Employment Service to produce order in the post-16 jungle.

What of the future? In spite of a massive increase in central power since 1988, in the year 2000, as in 1900, the education department neither owns any schools nor employs any teachers. Instead it relies on the ever more detailed direction of an ever more diverse array of local providers.

In direct contrast, the employment department, has from its inception in 1916, been a "hands-on" body. Its staff have served in employment exchanges and benefit offices throughout the country. It has commonly employed 10 times as many people as its education counterpart.

But is the DFEE's "hands-off" approach productive? A recent survey shows that, since May 1997, schools and education authorities have received 1,291 documents on guidance or regulation - more than one a day. This plethora of paper has become counter-productive in terms of promoting true education. Perhaps the DFEE should lead by example, and assume direct and permanent responsibility for the running of some "failing" schools and the employment of their teachers.

The creation of the DFEE was the most significant event in the history of the central authorities for education and employment. Nevertheless, it may also be seen as merely the latest in a series of re-inventions. For example, in 1964, the Ministry of Education became the Department of Education and Science. Four years later the Ministry of Labour became the Department of Employment and Productivity.

As yet the DFEE has not provided a model for other countries. Elsewhere, education and employment have remained in separate ministries, although mergers between employment and welfare structures have occurred. The recent proposal to link Job Centres and Benefit Offices might well pave the way for a further restructuring along these lines.

This could produce a de-merger of the DFEE, with a Department of Trade, Industry and Employment on the one hand, and a Department of Education and Training, or even a Department of Lifelong Learning, on the other.

Richard Aldrich is professor of history of education at the Institute of Education, University of London, and co-author with David Crook and David Watson of "Education and Employment: The DFEE and its Place In History", to be published in June

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