Business with class

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Any report which has political leaders such as Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine fighting for the limelight at its launch has to be taken seriously, but Promoting Prosperity - the businessmen's own agenda - has plenty going for it on its own account.

Drawn up by an impeccable team of business leaders working with the Labour-friendly Institute for Public Policy Research, the blueprint's immediate claim to fame (and the goad which had the deputy prime minister storming on to the battleground) was the rapprochement now made evident between Labour policy and serious business thinking.

But it had plenty to say about education too, much of it familiar stuff, though all the sweeter coming from businessmen and women. In particular, members of this latest Commission on Public Policy and British Business echoed that seminal document from the other National Commission, the one on education, with its emphasis on an early start to quality education at three years old, and a broadening of A-levels.

They were also at one with Sir Ron Dearing (and many others) on the need to turn around our overlong tail of underachievement and, like the Audit Commission, took a critical view of the Government's market approach to education.

Promoting Prosperity has some eminently rational observations to make about education's slender share of the GDP, and the reasonable expense of reducing infant class sizes to 30. These will not be music to the ears of any member of the Government, let alone Mr Competitiveness himself, but in the week of the Shadow Chancellor's pre-emptive tax strike they could also present challenges to a new Labour government.

Labour can pick what it wants from the report's recommendations, but there are three issues on lifelong learning which cannot be avoided. Some young people who stay in school after 16 would be better off in a commercial environment, it says, and one in five 16 to 19-year-olds is neither in work nor education or training. Both problems can be tackled by a single policy - mandatory traineeships leading at least to GNVQ level 2. All employers who want to take under-19s must guarantee at least eight hours off-the-job vocational training in every week. Once known as compulsory day-release, this is a policy familiar as an aspiration that never happened. Now the incentives to action are stronger, if there is to be any hope of hitting national education and training targets.

But a third strand of under-achievement is among adults who have slipped through the net. For them, the IPPR suggests that if all sub-degree courses are free and fees are charged for degree courses, then the funding biases in adult education would be eliminated.

Like smaller classes for 5-7-year-olds, this is virtually Labour policy. But the report resurrects key questions Labour has still to answer. Who meets the cost of 16 to 19 mandatory traineeships? Employers or the state? And who pays the bigger costs of adult support?

The suggested answer to the first question is an end to universal child benefit. To the second comes the windfall tax on privatised utilities. But Labour knows life is not that simple. Last April, a shadow cabinet review team picked over the entire support system. More than Pounds 2 billion could be released for restructuring, they reckoned.

But this cash is being rapidly eroded by "economies" built into Government budget estimates and Gordon Brown has committed the party to a budget standstill and continued tough constraints on public pay for at least two years. Where are all the extra students to be crammed in, and who will pay for the additional teachers?

There are many other tax and revenue pots a Labour government might raid. But if personal taxes and VAT are not to rise and employers are to receive incentives rather than pay training levies, amazing ingenuity and application will be needed to shift priorities and spending commitments within education and employment, or between departments.

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