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Man with a mantra

Schools minister David Miliband tells Ian Nash that 14-19 education must become a ladder of opportunities, not a series of hurdles

David Miliband has a single aim, which he repeats like a mantra: "My only target is that we have an education system that fulfils the potential of every child."

That said, the schools minister is quick to cite the numerous other government targets, from improvements in literacy and numeracy to value-added performance tables, which he points to as significant successes.

But these hark back to his prime goal and serve to define the tasks politicians set for professionals and administrators .

And through them one can see what he holds sacred and what is up for change. The foundations include GCSEs ("They are a proven motivator"); a diversity of institutes for learning (no return to the monolithic comprehensive ideal); a richer curriculum of general and specialist subjects; and performance tables.

He is willing to be convinced of the need for radical changes on funding- does the cash follow the learner?- and the need for an English Baccalaureat.

All of which brings him to the Government's drive for change: the White Paper 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence.

He says: "The heart of it is that we should have a 14-19 education and training system that is a genuine ladder of opportunity for every young person, rather than a series of hurdles to weed people out of education.

"If you are to have a curriculum that reaches all young people, you must offer choices of equal value across a range of institutional settings - school, college and the workplace - in collaboration to give an all-embracing offer." Since we have tried and failed before to raise esteem for applied studies, why should we succeed this time? His response to this question is: "Things are different this time: we are starting earlier and attaching genuine courses to the reforms.

"For example, the eight applied GCSEs are very significant. When you talk about engineering, you cannot gainsay that it's exciting and challenging."

The earlier start he refers to is what the Government is doing at key stage 3. By 13, young people will be advised on the best individual pathways, flexible enough to cope with later changes in their goals.

The first round of consultations leading to the White Paper may be over, but he says the Government has not stopped listening and he insists he is open-minded.

In the A-level debate, "there is a fundamental shift in mind towards a unified system", he says. "On ideas such as the English Bac, we have opened the door to that system. Whether we walk through depends on what the Tomlinson working group tells us."

On the big debates, he still wants to hear from the grass roots on funding, how to improve performance tables and the shape of assessment. "In response to the Green Paper of February 2001, we dropped things that did not prove sensible, such as the matriculation diploma."

And where voices were sufficiently convincing - such as the need for a foundation-level qualification (GCSE grade D-G) - the Government adopted the ideas. There is still an avenue of influence for teachers, lecturers and managers through the continued consultations of the Learning and Skills Council and the likes of the Tomlinson committee.

Seemingly contradictory pressures still need resolving, he accepts, for example on performance tables. Who gets the credit for shared excellence? "If more than one institution is making a contribution, we should recognise that. We have a series of 'test beds' as to how this might work. I do not rule out any mechanism."

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