Reform must be top of list on May 2

Dramatic reform of the post-16 education system will be essential to maintain Britain's economic status in the world, the leader of the nation's training and enterprise councils declared this week.

Chris Humphries, policy director of the training and enterprise councils' national council, said economic pressures would force any new government to embark on a fundamental programme of change to create an "explosion" in training.

In a pre-election interview with The TES, he argued that a government of any hue would have no choice but to embark on radical reform going to the heart of the education system.

He said all parties acknowledged the key link between training, skills and economic prosperity, but they all lacked a coherent and integrated policy to improve skills and promote lifelong learning.

Mr Humphries said global competition required the whole workforce, young and old, to reach national vocational qualification level 3 - the equivalent of A-level standard - forcing an explosion in training and radical change within education.

He said: "I think we will transform adult learning over the next five years.

"At the end of the day what we want is a workforce with as great a number as possible qualified to level 3. In order to get there it's not enough to educate the young."

Mr Humphries said everyone should be entitled to education to A-level standard or the vocational equivalent, and be allowed second chances if they fail. If necessary, cash should be moved from universities and colleges, he said, arguing for "the necessary redistribution of public funding to give priority to getting young people to reach their first level 3".

He said a coherent lifetime learning policy was needed to remove discrepancies which existed, between, for example, undergraduate study at university and vocational or professional qualifications. If necessary state funding could be given on a sliding scale, with people encouraged to invest in education and training through a highly developed system of learning accounts.

He argued the principle of equality alone required everyone to have the same access to education - and public support for that education.

TECs should also have a greater role in universities, as well as increasing their role in local planning.

Information technology was a key area for concern, he said, and policymakers had to ensure that all had access to the latest hardware and software to stop sections of the community losing out with no access to rapidly changing equipment.

He also predicted the need for action to ensure wider access to equipment as simple as telephones, arguing access to modern communications was vital as technology changed and distance learning became more important.

Such a radical programme, particularly one which attacked the dominance of universiti es and the A-level structure, would prove uncomfortable for any new government.

But Mr Humphries said he hoped to see some progress towards change within five years. "I do not think they will have any choice. I do not think you would have found this is a typical Conservative agenda five or 10 years ago, but they are talking about things now.

"Every country is faced with the problem of how to find the level of skills they need for economic security. That is a very strong incentive behind asking these sorts of questions.

"They are all faced with an inescapable economic problem. We cannot simply say the problem is solved for the young and we can ignore the adults. This agenda is going to be increasingly important."

Mr Humphries said the three major parties' manifestos did not go into enough detail, But he said TECs were encouraged that all parties had recognised the link between skills and economic success. And TEC leaders were pleased at the warm words for their work.

He predicted greater consolidation between TECs, Business Link organisations and chambers of commerce, and argued for more co-operation between the private and public sectors in education.

There was a feeling, he said, that TECs were secure and would have a key role to play in the changes to come - a feeling that they would be busy between now and the next election in 2002.

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