All change

16th June 2000 at 01:00
So what do you think of it so far? Simon Midgley gauges business opinion on the Government's three-year barrage of education reforms

Since the Government came to power three years ago, there has been an enormous number of educational initiatives. One estimate suggests as many as 1,400 - a total of which even the reform-minded former Education Secretary Kenneth Baker would have been proud.

While educational managers have struggled to absorb and implement the flurry of changes, for the most part industry and commerce have welcomed them as key steps in the right direction. Having said that, small businesses have been so confused by the plethora of training and education initiatives that the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) will shortly be publishing a book identifying all the measures to date. So far, this runs to 56 pages.

Many leading business figures, however, are impressed by the Government's commitment to standards and its willingness to listen to industry and commerce about how to do this. John Baker, deputy chairman of Celltech, one of the UK's leading biotechnology pharmaceutical companies and a member of David Blunkett's Education Standards Taskforce, praises the Government's commitment to education and training and its "absolute, burning zeal" to raising standards.

He says industry and commerce had wanted action on a range of key issues: primary education, numeracy and literacy and extra resources in geographical areas of particular need. On the whole, Baker says, the big business community has welcomed most of the Government's initiatives.

Another key area of concern was to raise the status of teachers and to recognise them as the solution, not the cause of the problem. The national teaching awards and improved pay help achieve this. All teachers, he says, should also have their own workstations and personal computers - too many have to queue for photocopiers or work out of corridors.

It is also vital that the teaching profession signs up fully to the Government's programme of change. "If you don't win the hearts and minds of teachers, if you cannot help them make a difference in the classroom, then of course the initiatives are stillborn," says Baker.

He adds that the jury is still out on how the teaching profession comes to terms with performance appraisal, continuous professional development and performance-related pay.

Rudi Plaut, chirman of Northmace, says it would have been better to introduce packages of linked initiatives, and that curriculum additions should have been balanced by cuts to prevent teachers' jobs becoming impossible. While the Government was right to tackle numeracy and literacy, it should not go back to a reliance on the three Rs, he says.

Moreover, the British tendency to start learning earlier and earlier whenever an educational weakness is encountered is, he says, unhelpful. "In Norway, where children start school much later, illiteracy levels are half those in Britain."

Mr Plaut thinks we should also stop chasing mothers back to work and, instead, encourage them to spend time touching, hugging, talking and singing with their children. It is through these activities, he says, that children's brains make the fundamental connections that form the basis for future learning.

Doug Wilkie, education and training spokesperson for the Federation of Small Businesses, says his members are bewildered by the avalanche of initiatives. He thinks some initiatives are confused - for example, training to improve an individual's skills is not necessarily the same as training that will improve productivity in a business.

Some training programmes, moreover, seem solely designed to enable people to get more qualifications. Such programmes are then judged on the number of qualifications achieved. He also says that many business training courses are designed for big businesses, which are very different from small businesses. Some courses use obsolete word processing packages because schools and colleges cannot afford new software.

Margaret Murray, head of the CBI's learning and skills department, welcomes the Government's bid to tackle literacy and numeracy and to reform teachers' pay and conditions. However, the CBI would have preferred a more evolutionary approach to replacing TECs with learning and skills councils. Employers will only get involved with local councils, she warns, if such councils have the flexibility and autonomy to make a difference.

She thinks, too, that career guidance for young people is patchy. The CBI wants such guidance to relate clearly to employment opportunities. In the long run, adds Murray, the CBI would like to see a bespoke education and training system, shaped and driven by the needs of the individual, and with age proving no limit to access.

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