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Learn from history or be doomed to repeat it

OF all the tricks used by public speakers, the time-shift wheeze is one of the most common. This is the one where the audience is presented with a quote that admirably sums up a current problem or policy and is asked to name the author. For example, there may be a quote about the need for prudence in national finances The audience, eager to please, obviously guesses "Gordon Brown" - but the quote turns out to be from some government report in 1846. The speaker can barely conceal his delight at having fooled us.

The audience is meant to infer from this wheeze that the problems we face are not new, that educational progress is ridiculously slow and, lastly, that it is about time we got a move on. It doesn't seem to occur to speakers who use the device that they may be proving another point entirely: it could be that the reason the problem is still around is that it is insoluble, or it could be that the original analysis of the problem was plain wrong. Or that, while the language used to describe an issue may sound very similar, the modern problem is very different. Through the 1870s and 1880s, for example, everyone in education and social reform was banging on about the need to raise skill levels if we were to survive as an economic force in an increasingly global economy. Sounds familiar doesn't it? But the problems being addressed were a school-leaving age of 12, a secondary curriculum that didn't get much beyond the Classics and incredibly low levels of adult literacy and numeracy.

The problem today is entirely different. The secondary curriculum is so vast and unpopular that many youngsters switch off at 12 and, of course, we have got the number of illiterate adults down to a manageable seven million.

I could even offer you a few quotes which just have to be from the much-missed Estelle talking about boosting the vocational at 14 to 19.

Except they would be from James Callaghan starting the Great Debate in 1976, or the Crowther Report's call for "the rehabilitation of the practical" in 1964, or even deeper into antiquity. The sad fact is that Britain has missed the vocational boat more often than a band of drunken sailors on shore leave.

A popular 14 to 19 practical curriculum is Britain's curricular lost continent. We know it's out there somewhere, we know it would contain immense treasures and offer huge rewards if we could find it, but we are too afraid of the dinosaurs to mount a serious expedition to look. Our last expedition looked promising. It was called the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in that slick way we have of naming our pedagogic products.

It had everything: loads of money, government backing, a path through the jungle that avoided the local education authority dinosaurs (who hated it) and bags of time for teachers to develop the new curriculum, which they did with enthusiasm. Its aims were to use industry and commerce to develop a practical curriculum which would raise achievement for all young people.

Over pound;1 billion was spent on TVEI, mostly between 1983 and 1988 - then the national curriculum, academic to the core, squashed it flat.

At its heart, however, TVEI had a huge vacuum. There was no national system of qualifications and no means of developing one, either. In its absence, scores of different vocational crews rushed in their own versions. Hundreds of new GCSEs were developed. You could do a GCSE in teeth flossing or spade sharpening, often in modular format with the ultimate absurdity of a GCSE in "modular studies", combining a smattering of catering, some business French, swimming pool maintenance and poodle dressing.

The lack of national co-ordination meant families moving a few miles across county borders found the subjects their sons and daughters had studied in Warwickshire were utterly unknown in Coventry.

The problem was that, as we obsessed about how to teach spade sharpening, we completely forgot about outcomes: the raising achievement bit.

And here we go again. A new expedition is looking for the lost continent.

This time there may be a nationally curriculum and qualifications framework. There is even talk of replacing A-levels with a baccalaureate-style exam. The French, so rumour has it, have a rather good model. We spent a billion on the TVEI calamity. Let's learn a few lessons from it.

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