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Not easy reading, but useful for reference;FE Focus;Review;Books

NEW LABOUR'S EDUCATIONAL AGENDA: issues and policies for education and training from 14+. By Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours. Kogan Page pound;18.99

THE authors of this book have performed a useful public service by actually reading the deluge of documents which have descended over the past two years and reducing them to some sort of order.

In the process they have been forced to compile endless lists dealing in turn with the major themes of qualifications, lifelong learning, the New Deal, training for work and FE and HE. These lists and sub-lists make this sympathetic account of the Government's first two years a valuable source of reference if not easy reading.

Hodgson and Spours have even compared New Labour opposition statements with what they have done since to conclude that, while the Government has accepted the Thatcherite legacy in education, it is "modifying this marketised system" to make it "more inclusive". They do not accept that inclusion is contradicted by Mrs Thatcher's legacy to an education system whose selective characteristics have been heightened at all levels (particularly because their treatment of HE is cursory).

Their case is that from 14-plus, when selection for tiered GCSEs in socially-polarised schooling sets students on distinctive learning tracks, government policy is "more cautious, experimental and voluntarist" than the rigid adherence to uniform standards dictated to schools. (Teachers in "experimental" education action zones might not agree.) There is therefore all to play for, especially as the social missions of FE and HE are still unclear. The announcement of yet another government review, this time of all non-HE provision, makes FE's situation more than usually ambiguous and undermines the training and enterprise councils. At the time this book was written, TECs appeared settled under the new regional development agencies. Indeed, the authors invest in the RDAs many of their hopes for pioneering practical changes to overcome competition and exclusion.

For they conclude that New Labour has so far implemented only "a weak framework" of "piecemeal reforms" "to modify the negative effects of the education and training market ... without changing the shape of the system as a whole". They hope for such a "strong framework" from New Labour's second term and justify this aspiration with a detailed account of qualification reform - the area of their own consultancy on the Government's behalf. Here they see movement, if only by inches, down "the Scottish road" towards a unified system of credit accumulation and transfer, plus reliance upon a learning bank of voucherised individual learning accounts.

So, while conceding that the jury is still out on New Labour's efforts, Spours and Hodgson argue that "the move towards a strong framework should begin now" as part of "the build-up to a new manifesto for a second Parliament".

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