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Reformers angered by lack of action

Susan Young finds the director of the National Commission on Education fuming about the Government's inertia.

The Government is likely to come under heavy fire in the final report of the National Commission on Education, to be published next week.

In an exclusive interview with The TES, commission director Sir John Cassels has made clear his anger over official inaction coupled with the effects of this year's education cuts since his inquiry produced its much-hailed recommendations 18 months ago.

His personal views are likely to be reflected in Learning To Succeed: The Way Ahead, which examines how far the recommendations of the independent team have been implemented and undertakes a final survey of the state of education and training in Britain.

Entitlement to nursery education for all three and four-year-olds is the only idea on which action has been taken, although the recent announcement of Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into 16-19 education partly addresses the commission's suggestion of a unified framework of qualifications for that age group.

In some areas, such as the recommendation that primary class sizes should be reduced and literacy and numeracy drives instigated, the situation appears to have worsened since the commission reported.

Although Sir John said he was encouraged by how many of the commission's recommendations had become conventional wisdom, he said: "I have concerns about how fast we do things, how seriously we take education and how fast we do something about it as opposed to talking about it.

"I think this is something which the commission has been feeling increasingly dismayed about in the past 18 months because although there have been a lot of good discussion with a lot of people interested we can't help noticing action doesn't seem to follow.

"To take nursery education: there we were excited by the PM's support for universal nursery education. What's actually happened since then? Nothing. Nursery education has no new money and you will remember one circular or letter from the present Secretary of State telling MPs how to save money because local authorities were under no obligation to spend on nursery education.

"So far as primary schools are concerned, we said classes have been getting bigger for a decade, it's not a little blip, and lo and behold when teachers get a pay increase it's not funded by the Government so class sizes are going to increase again in the current year."

Sir John's ire is also roused by the failure to do anything to improve the quality of teacher training recruits during a time when the recession has made it a popular choice, and the reluctance of politicians to tackle the problem of higher education funding.

He said: "Sometimes I feel quite angry. At the moment it's emerging that for two-thirds of our young people education and training opportunities are improving and for one-third they are not improving and that I do think I feel cross about.

"One feels real anguish that so many young people are getting left behind by improvements in education. It's very sad for them and very worrying for everybody, not simply because of social cohesion. If we want them to be economically successful, if we want to be prosperous, then it's bloody difficult to be prosperous if between a quarter and a half of young people are shut out by society and are liable to be a charge on it instead of contributing to it."

He concedes that this is not simply a failure of government, but has a great deal to do with the lack of interest in education demonstrated by the public - in marked contrast to states such as Singapore, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong ("where people think they won't eat if they don't get a good education") as well as European competitors such as Germany. He said that although the Government had a lot of power to do such things, it needed the impetus of public demand.

"If people in this country minded enough about education and if the Government minded enough about education that they would publicly commit themselves to increasing investment in it year on year, we wouldn't have these alarms and excursions," he said.

The NCE itself was funded to the tune of around Pounds 1 million by a charitable trust, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, after the Thatcher government refused calls for a Royal Commission.

Sir John said some people still argued that Britain survived the Industrial Revolution with minimal education and training and so no change was necessary now. However, we are in a different world, where economic success was made more difficult by international competition and the key was using the intelligence and capabilities of people to their utmost. "If you fall behind economically you stop being able to to afford the kind of health service you would want, the standard of living stops going up and may go down. The whole basis of civilised life is threatened."

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