A patch-up is no good, let's have an overhaul
But such optimism assumes policy-makers with an electoral mandate and stakeholder support have the power to make changes which no one can resist. The history of education in this notoriously elitist nation tells us to be more pessimistic. In terms of building the UK competitive skills-base there are some radical changes which should not be resisted.
New Labour is committed to 21 steps to change education. In the White Paper Excellence in schools these come under the important principles of equality of opportunity, higher standards for all and education to benefit the many, not just the few.
New policies illustrate its commitment to change - from universal nursery education and smaller infant classes to action zones to help the disadvantaged, the New Deal to replace discredited Youth Training and a much overdue promise to broaden A-levels and upgrade vocational qualifications. But are these policies fundamental reforms in line with the stated principles or attempts to patch up the weakest parts of a flawed 20th-century system?
We need an overall vision of "education for all" integrating schools and further and higher education into a coherent system with fairer funding, proven added value and improved access "for the many".
The thought-provoking National Commission on Education did just this. It called for broader education post-16 combining academic and vocational qualifications under a single diploma and a loan system with incentives to increase individual contributions from adults in HE.
This new resource would enable government to shift funds to nursery and primary schools and support the needy young people in further education. Such radical changes were resisted under the last government.
In my view we should not give up. The post-14 qualification system should come under unified certification at 18. This is the only way to overcome the academicvocational divide and ensure that all students combine academic study with vocational and key skills. Nobody should try to maintain a curriculum and qualification system aimed at selecting academic elites rather than skilling a nation to face global competition.
In addition, we should move towards loans with incentives for students in further and higher education, with safety nets to ensure access for the disadvantaged, as the only viable way to increase investment in education and lifelong learning for all.
Watch out, however - a recent Confederation of British Industry report on education funding entitled "Does it add up?" confirmed the cost to society of the few at university - average Pounds 7,000 per student ,with FE on Pounds 3,000 and nurseryprimary schools just scraping over Pounds 1,000.
It is an old charge that this nation invests massively in a small elite and neglects the rest. The evidence is damning. We have a world-class education system for the comparatively low 1 in 3 participating in degree-level qualifications - an overall average score below that of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations (and slipping) and the worst "tail of under-achievement" among advanced economies.
Yet, regardless of government, we continue to invest more in the few at the top and fail to adequately fund schools and further education. In addition, whereas schools and colleges have, for nearly a decade, worked under performance targets, output measures, independent inspections and market-driven reforms to increase quality and productivity HE is yet to fully face this new culture of continuous improvement.
It is time to change the funding regime. The top priorities are investment in teaching as a professional career at every level of education (to tackle the recruitment crisis), in infrastructure (especially nursery and primary schools - the most important phase of learning and the least funded!) and in expansion of access to further and higher education (especially for the most needy).
Yet many in HE will resist this reallocation. We currently allow universities to pay academics 30 per cent more than lecturers and teachers in colleges and schools (with no evidence of added value). Some universities, especially the new ones, have proved more entrepreneurial, productive and responsive to the needs of the nation. But in truth universities take out far too much and serve far too few.
Higher education should be reformed and become accountable in the same way as colleges and schools. Managers must prove added-value with higher levels of productivity, year-by-year baseline improvements in student performance and expansion of provision to wider groups in society (a target of 50 per cent would bring in line with leading competitors).
It may prove necessary to split away research and development functions in order to ensure productivity and quality in the essential teaching element. Here weak teachers should be removed and the control for the rest of qualification system placed in an independent public body with the capacity to assess and respond to the needs of employers and the modern economy - the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should be given this status.
At the same time universities should contribute to national education needs including adult education students at-risk and Welfare to Work, brokering placements for the university for industry and customised training for needy groups and support for development programmes with schools and colleges expanding educational opportunity across communities.
In this new age of the knowledge worker, where individual employability and national prosperity depend upon multiple advanced level skills, this nation must now (for the first time) move onwards to higher standards in education for the many, not just the few.
Alongside schools and FE, the universities should contribute to this broader agenda as an integral part of an education system aiming to provide wider opportunity and greater added value - not try to maintain an elite status and resist essential change.
Ian Pearce is director of Education for Business in the Community