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No accounting for failure

The National Commission says that rapid growth of the power of central government in education has not been matched by a willingness to accept greater responsibility for the system's performance or be more accountable for the results of decisions taken centrally. This, in one of the report's most strongly-worded chapters, it describes as "not acceptable".

It believes the revised national targets for education and training are still inadequate, suggesting that there should be foundation targets relevant to primary and secondary school-leavers and higher education, as well as lifetime aims for literacy and numeracy and one encouraging lifelong learning.

The report says that "one of the immediate implications of these shortcomings is that there are no targets for which the Department of Education can be held directly to account."

The commission considers it essential that there should be a long-term commitment to increasing the value of public expenditure on education and training as part of a strategic approach to raising national achievement. It points out that education spending as a percentage of public expenditure fell in real terms from 13 per cent in 1975-76 to 11.7 per cent in 1992-93, and as a proportion of gross domestic product from 6.4 per cent to 5.2.

In cash terms this was a rise from Pounds 7 billion to Pounds 31 billion: in real terms a rise from Pounds 27.9 billion to Pounds 31.5 billion. Britain spends four times as much on every university student as on each school pupil, almost twice as much as the OECD average and a much higher ratio than any other OECD country.

The report says: "It is impossible to pin down responsibility for important aspects of standards in schools." The latest annual report of the Chief Inspector of Schools demonstrates that a high proportion of school buildings are in poor condition, and cites examples of dated computer equipment and book shortages. "Who is responsible for the poor condition of school buildings? Ministers, local education authorities and individual schools all assert that they are not to blame, but somebody must be."

The commission has a similar question about the rise in class sizes. "No responsibility is shouldered at the centre. In our view, it is time that departments laid down minimum standards in such key matters as these, set realistic dates by which every school must reach those minimum standards and ensured that the funding necessary for their achievement is genuinely available."

In similar vein, the commission is concerned about the vacuum in the management of provision for 16 to18-year-olds, citing the various bodies which split control of schools, colleges, and city technology colleges between them. "As a result, control of both quality and costs is now haphazard or non-existent," it says, suggesting that the current Dearing review into 16-19 provision might look into the matter but that eventually the Government must find a way to bring all publicly-maintained schools into a coherent relationship with each other.

In another angry section, the commission says: "We do not believe that the DFE's approach to research in education is defensible, let alone satisfactory. " Spending, it says, has fallen from almost Pounds 80 million a year in the late 1980s to only Pounds 23 million last year. No research on local management of schools or the performance of grant-maintained schools was initiated, nor on class sizes.

The report says: "This is not a responsible basis for policy-making. We detect instead a reluctance to collect evidence that might be politically embarrassing or could generate demand for higher funding. We urge the Department for Education to develop a programme of research in keeping with its central responsibility for education. All research reports should be published quickly to aid public discussion."

Finally, the report reiterates its demand for a new Department of Education and Training, the lack of which the commission believes is to blame for slow progress in providing for 16 to 19-year-olds and much confusion and waste.

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