Salad days in the mid-Nineties

Michael Austin

The golden age of civilisation is often reckoned to be the 5th century BC, when Athens was in its pomp, and that of cricket, the period just before World War 1.

You could debate either claim, or both, but you could also be certain that those who were there at the time would have been astonished and depressed at the thought that things would get no better. That's the trouble with golden ages: they never seem to be now, and they are over before you've had any proper chance to enjoy them.

Education is no different from classical Athens in that respect. The "Come back Clarke" graffiti has long since appeared on the ivory walls of academe, scrawled, presumably, by those who recoiled at Patten. The late Lord Joseph, reviled at the time, has come close to beatification among a remorseful teaching force.

For colleges, the bad news is that these mid-Nineties will one day be recalled with lump-in-the-throat nostalgia. People shall think themselves accurs'd that they were not here when the air was thick with funding crises and industrial relations fiascos.

So, what makes these days halcyon? For a start, we are being talked about, from the Cabinet to the corner shop. It doesn't matter much what they are saying, the important thing is to be noticed in a world where indifference is the cruellest torment. People have, suddenly, high expectations of us, even if the kindly light in which we are bathed is that of ignorance.

It is a time when we can experiment, when serious people are starting to say sensible things about our curriculum, and when, briefly and gloriously, there is a mite more money about. Those who work in colleges may go home exhausted after a hard day's arm-wrestling with GNVQ assessment criteria, and there may be moments of frustration when the Management Information System is sulking, and we may not be able to look another new marketing idea in the face. But who'd exchange all that for the dull routine of the old days?

Five years on, unless we are very lucky, today will look hopelessly, irretrievably, brilliant.

Of course, the ointment is full of flies, but then not everything was wonderful about 5th-century Athens. There were, to be sure, world-class philosophers strutting their stuff on street corners, regularly tossing off seminal thoughts to the admiring throng. But the system of vocational education was in a mess, had low status, and the economy depended on the use of mass cheap labour. Systems of assessment and accreditation were non-existent, and they couldn't tell a competency from a plate of stuffed vine leaves.

No wonder they were happy.

We have not only to enjoy what we have, but we should try to make it last longer. We could start by recognising our friends and taking their help. The National Commission on Education, for example, is about to fold. Its latest and almost last report Learning to Succeed: the Way Forward has just come out.

It says some excellent things about our post-compulsory phase, notably about the need for a single framework for qualifications, encompassing all academic, vocational and pre-vocational routes in a pattern of modular, build-your-own elements.

The odd thing is that almost nobody is speaking against the proposals, apart from a diminishing number of Ministers, wound up by recidivist civil servants. Will anything be done? The attention span of the British people is notoriously short (in less than a week the nation's conversation had switched from Rob Andrew's boot to Jonah Lomu's thighs, and then to Hugh Grant's friend). if we are not careful, the commission's report will be quietly forgotten.

What, then, is required to bring about a change? A shift in public opinion is a mysterious process. It can take years - decades even - for innovation in, say, art to catch on, for the outrageous to become the best-selling poster. In education, ideas and fashions can be equally slow to move.

Universally available nursery education, for example, has suddenly been accepted by all as a good thing, after years of lobbying. The Government has now approved the idea in principle, done precious little about it to be sure, but the idea is now lodged in the public and political consciousness and will not go away. It is an idea whose time has come.

It may be that Sir Ron Dearing - a dab hand now at squaring circles - will, in his review of qualifications, propose something which closely resembles the National Commission's proposals. He may provide sufficient cover for a government to obscure its retreat from its own A-level cul-de-sac. That would be a landmark of a golden age.

The commission also argues powerfully for a more rational system of financial support for students in colleges, and lays out clearly how this, and all their other proposals covering all phases of education, from nappy to mortar-board, would be paid for. The commission members were not just educators, but people from business and the professions, statisticians and economists from all points of the political compass, just the sort of cross-section from which a consensus ought to be persuasive.

Now that it is our turn to have our salad days we simply must not let our strongest supporters become heroes only in retrospect. If we let the moment pass, we will condemn ourselves to wistful if-only's and might-have-beens. For this golden age threatens to be brutally short. The Government - any government - is going to get bored with our fractiousness, having other matters, like Europe, to deal with.

The Treasury will bang the lid shut on its money box, as it did on higher education before us, and public attention will drift back to schools and the reassuring certainties of the universities. As the light fades and the heat goes, we will be left wondering where it all went wrong, and yearning for a reprise of our days in the sun. As Socrates might have said, had he spoken Latin: Carpe diem.

Edited by Ian Nash

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