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Learning from cradle to grave

Education is the key to national renewal the Social Justice Commission said this week. Susan Young analyses its report. Change, and managing change, lie at the heart of the Commission on Social Justice's vision of a thriving 21st century Britain. The commission, which published its conclusions in a Pounds 6.99 book this week, was set up by former Labour leader John Smith to devise a modern version of the Beveridge report which shaped the Welfare State 50 years ago.

It concludes that the social revolution, long-term unemployment and increasingly short-term jobs - eroded by technology and new international competition - can only be tackled by giving individuals the flexibility to adapt.

"That social justice is not simply a moral ideal but an economic necessity is at the heart of this report," the commissioners say in the introduction to the 400-page Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal.

The key, they believe, is education - for life. Launching the book Sir Gordon Borrie, the commission chairman, explained: "Social justice is not a dry and academic exercise. It is about the state of our schools, the scandal of unemployment, the spread of insecurity in our streets.

"Social justice is about whether wages can support a thriving family, whether people in need are given a hand-up rather than a hand-out, and about whether our children can expect a better future than ourselves.

"We argue that we must radically improve our education and training system. Without that, social mobility and economic opportunity will not be achieved. In addition to reforms affecting schoolchildren, we propose a new Learning Bank to fund education and training for all adults throughout the life-cycle."

The report takes Beveridge's Five Great Evils - want, idleness, ignorance, squalor and disease - and adds a sixth - racial discrimination. It suggests that Britain should build on "six great opportunities" - financial independence, work, lifelong learning, a safe environment, good health and equal treatment.

The principle of extending the same opportunity to all underpins the education chapter. Every three and four-year-old should be entitled to nursery education, all seven-year-olds should be entitled to be literate and numerate, vocational and academic paths in schools should be equal and interchangeable, and everyone should have the right to three years' post-18 learning.

Unusually the commission makes connections between the different bureaucratic obstacles and other factors which affect individual lives. For instance, it suggests family-friendly employment practices, and stresses that nurseries cannot be seen in isolation from child care - and nor can training. In another example, it suggests that teenagers should be obliged to undertake Citizens' Service as part of a drive to rebuild society, while teaching them practical life skills and a basic education component.

The idea of a Learning Bank which would entitle everyone to the equivalent of three years' full-time post-18 education is possibly the most radical and far-reaching in the report. Not only might it improve the uptake of higher education courses, but is also intended to enable people to take vocational qualifications at the time, place, and pace which suits their circumstances - thus leading to true parity of esteem, the commission hopes.

Much in the book is not new. Recommendations on nursery schooling, for instance, have been lifted directly from last year's National Commission on Education report, albeit with added emphasis on child-care policies which should be put in place at the same time.

Its three suggestions on the funding of higher education also come from elsewhere, and a section on creating a British baccalaureate to widen A-level appears to be a direct lift from a paper published in 1990 by the Institute for Public Policy Research. Perhaps coincidentally, one of its authors was commission secretary David Miliband - now in charge of policy in Labour leader Tony Blair's private office.

The big questions now are how much it might all cost, and how much of the report Labour might adopt for its next election manifesto. Mr Smith deliberately got the left-of-centre Institute of Public Policy Research to set up the commission as a think-tank at arm's length from Labour - giving the commissioners the freedom to think the unthinkable and the party the freedom to reject or accept as many of their deliberations as it wanted.

Launching the report, Mr Blair was at pains to emphasise this. "Commissions write reports. Parties write manifestoes. That will now be our task," he said, describing the paper as "a remarkable piece of work". Although on paper, his speech appeared enthusiastic about many of the report's contents, observers noted that his delivery was less than sparkling - opening the question of how much personal endorsement he might give.

However, the fact that Mr Blair tackled directly many of the commission's often controversial recommendations is being read as a positive sign. Confirming Labour's commitment to quality nursery education, broader A-levels and lifelong learning, he singled out university funding and the Learning Bank suggestion for particular comment.

Labour had always rejected the idea of repayable student loans for higher education in case it deterred young people "but as with any of the commission's recommendations, we will examine them but we will want to take account very clearly of that principle," he said. "We should discuss difficult issues, and not duck them. But one thing should be clear above all others. We will sanction no change that breaches the most fundamental principle of all - that education should be based on ability to benefit and not ability to pay."

The lack of a price tag is likely to be the commission's biggest hostage to fortune. Social security secretary Peter Lilley has already made caustic comments about the imbalance between spending and savings proposals, and two of the few figures in the report come in the nursery section, which quotes the National Commission's Pounds 860 million and the Department for Education's Pounds 1 billion.

Commissioners say it would be more expensive to single out particular aspects of the report for action. It was intended for across-the-board implementation - which, if the commission is right, might include many savings as numbers of people in part and full-time work rose, raising tax revenue and reducing dependence on benefits.

According to commissioner Eithne McLaughlin: "In many ways, to cost what we propose would be impossible. You could not do it." Nevertheless that is exactly what Labour researchers will have to do if any part of the commission's report is to become Tony Blair's Big Idea for the next election.

Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal, the Report of the Commission on Social Justice. Published by Vintage Pounds 6.99.

The six priorities

To revitalise education on the basis of high standards and high performance, the commission has six priorities: * Universal pre-school education for three and four-year-olds, plus new investment in child care; * An attack on the problem of inadequate basic skills; * An end to the divide between education and training for 14 to 19 year-olds, to promote high achievement; * Minimum training investment by all employers; * Expansion of higher education, with a new and fairer system of funding; * A "learning bank", to extend to every adult the opportunity of lifelong learning.

The commission also wants: * Citizens' Service for teenagers, to include a core educational component, possibly becoming a requirement of the secondary education qualification; * A jobs, education and training strategy similar to that pioneered in Australia to help long-term unemployed and lone parents into work.

* Help for anyone with qualifications below A-levelNVQ 3 to reach that standard.

* Abolition of the 21-hour rule which covers benefit payments to students.

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