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Inaction speaks louder than words

Susan Young reviews the final report of the National Commission on Education, published today, which has a string of harsh judgments on government inactivity, refusal to accept responsibility and disinclination to come up with adequate funding. The final report of the National Commission on Education, published today, is unlikely to make comfortable reading for the Government.

Such is the anger felt by the independent commissioners about the state of education and training in the UK that they have finally proved willing to lambast the policy-makers - at best for inaction, at worst for harmful actions - for events since their main report came out 18 months ago.

The commission, led by neurologist Lord Walton of Detchant, even accuses the Government of failing to take responsibility for the situation in schools and avoiding research which might be politically embarrassing.

Although the commission (funded by a Pounds 1 million grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation after calls for a Royal Commission were refused by the Thatcher government) sees some positive results of its work these are few and far between. It believes it transformed thinking on universal nursery education and built a consensus that 14 to 19 education should be planned as a whole and there should be some sort of unified national framework of 16 to 19 qualifications. It also sparked the debate on an overhaul of the arrangements to support students and trainees.

The report, Learning To Succeed: The Way Forward, says: "Any satisfaction which we might take in having influenced opinion in these and other matters is outweighed by feelings of dismay at the extent to which action has lagged behind rhetoric."

Out of the original 16 recommendations, some limited action had been taken on just four, while the situation had worsened significantly on several, the report says. "It is particularly hard to see any justification for the fact that the Government accepted the recommendation of the School Teachers' Review Body that teachers' pay should be increased by 2.7 per cent, but refused to fund the award in full. Despite ministerial protests to the contrary, it was from the outset clearly foreseeable that this would lead to large reductions in teaching staff.

"It was also certain that the larger classes would mean poorer education for children: the assertion that class sizes do not matter is disingenuous and is contradicted not only by common sense but by most of the quite extensive research evidence that exists."

Although it credits the Government for much of its action to reform and modernise education and training since the 1988 Education Reform Act - expansion of higher education, development of vocational qualifications and the modern apprenticeship scheme, the Dearing changes to the national curriculum and the current moratorium on change - the commission criticises what it says is an over-reliance on market forces. "Competition plays a useful part when its effect is to improve learning for pupils. There is, however, little to be said for stimulating competition which is either unfair or which enables some schools to flourish only by making it more difficult for other schools to offer education of good quality.

"Giving extra capital funding to schools choosing to become grant-maintained falls into this category; so also does allowing schools to introduce a measure of selection by ability or social background, thus enabling them to do well in 'league tables' and to attract more parents and hence more funding, to the detriment of other schools."

The report criticises the "one-sidedness" of the situation where GM schools can exclude pupils for misconduct but have no obligation to accept pupils excluded elsewhere. The ascendancy of Office for Standards in Education inspections and resulting demise of local authority advisory and inspection services "was too hastily assumed to be an unmixed good," the report says, adding that the effect of reforms in the classroom also appears to have been poorly understood, causing much teacher stress.

"A failure to count the human cost of change appears too in the Government's approach to higher education," it says, noting the steady growth of student-staff ratios against salary growth of 12 per cent in the decade to 1993, compared with 36 per cent among non-manual workers generally. "No responsible company would demand so much of its employees. In all this the Government has assumed too readily that more and more can be squeezed from the system in return for little (if any) increase in funding. There is now a long catalogue of neglect which will have to be paid for in the years to come.

"Spending on education and training is an investment . . . the most important investment that the country has to make in order to improve its competitiveness and safeguard its future prosperity.

"It must be the aim of any responsible government to commit itself to consistent year-on-year increases in investment in education and training in order to secure the country's future."

Learning to Succeed: The Way Forward, published by the National Commission on Education (Pounds 2.50) and available from the NCE at 344-354 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8BP until the end of June and then at the British Association for the Advancement of Science at 23 Savile Row, London W1X 1AB

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