The challenge is skills for all

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Margaret Thatcher moved the goalposts and if the discourse of New Labour is to be believed there are no plans to put them back in their original positions no matter what some Labour councillors might believe about the financial floodgates being opened in the event of a Labour government. The goalposts had been "shoogled" before she moved them. In 1968, Enoch Powell in a speech to the Conservative National Advisory Committee on Education claimed that of all sacred cows education was not only the most sacred but "the most cowlike". He questioned the prevalent assumption of a direct causal link between educational expenditure and economic growth.

In 1976, in his famous Ruskin College speech, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan asked whether the education service was adequately preparing young people to do "a job of work" and indicated his concern about the "status quo" by calling for a Great Debate on Education. The postwar consensus was cracking. The economic crisis triggered by the rise in world oil prices led many from very different political perspectives to consider that a radical change in education was necessary.

Lurking in the background was Sir Keith (later Lord) Joseph, who took the view that the education service was not only unconducive but positively hostile to industry and wealth creation, thereby making a major contribution to Britain's relative economic decline. He wanted a system that developed skills and encouraged an entrepreneurial, risk-taking culture. The scene was set for the Thatcher and post-Thatcher revolution. The Tories had become the radical party while Old Labour, dominated by the unions, exuded conservatism.

Speaking in Glasgow University, a few years after Mrs Thatcher came to power, Andrew Neil, then editor of the Sunday Times, opined that "the world is rediscovering the market". Since then the Soviet Union has collapsed and services are being privatised in Moscow. As Harold G Shane, professor of education and leading American futurologist, pointed out in his research-based book Curriculum Change: Toward the 21st Century (National Education Association of the United States, 1977), the world was entering a period of exponential change, driven by technology, which would create new demands for skill and adaptability. The "policy community" in Scottish education, as usual, did not see the train coming down the line until it hit them.

It would take several books, not an article, fully to explore the changes introduced in Scottish education by the New Right. It is not good enough to mount the "ya-boo" response to such changes usually offered by the nationalistic Left. To survive, the country had to adapt to the pressures of international change in an increasingly global community. The pressures included a drive to consumerism not unrelated to W E Deming's client-orientated approach in Total Quality Management. The political impact in Scotland was the parents' charter, the assisted places scheme, "opting-out" and school boards.

In 1989, Professor Robert Skidelsky wrote: "The most hopeful political development of recent years is revival of belief in the market system. It has become worldwide, uniting rich and poor, capitalist and socialist countries in a common language and the beginnings of a common practice. In Russia, China and Eastern Europe, the monoliths of state socialism have started to crumble; in the West the army of officials is in retreat" (The Social Market Economy, Social Market Foundation, 1989).

One can assume that these ideas had not escaped a rising young politician called Tony Blair. Nor, manifestly, had they escaped the consultants from Birmingham University called in to report on the education department of the former Strathclyde Region. The Inlogov report (March 1989) is an indictment of old-style, "petrified" bureaucracy, unresponsive to change, obsessed by detail, with a management culture characterised by fear. Now there is a lot to be said for bureaucracy. It is often the rational and, in some circumstances, the only way to deliver the goods. D-Day would have been a failure without it. In the modern world, however, it needs to be redefined in theory and practice so that it takes account of change and, above all, of people. Inlogov reflected a worldwide movement of ideas.

So did the growing emphasis on skill. It is no coincidence that the Government's recent Raising the Standard is subtitled "A White Paper on Education and Skills Development in Scotland". The 16-plus action plan (1983) was one of the most significant developments in postwar Scottish education. It prepared the way for bridging the gap between the vocational and academic routes in education argued for by Professor Shane and, most ably, in Scotland by Professor Douglas Weir. Higher Still is a continuation of that process and that is why Higher Still should be implemented as soon as possible. Change must not be arrested, at least in countries that hope to survive economically. Furthermore, those who are committed to the cultural, spiritual aspects of education should stop sneering at skill like jumped-up Platonic guardians.

The international dimension of the changes discussed does not discount a proper pride in Scottish culture, one which hopefully eschews the sentimentality, romanticism, nostalgia, even xenophobia, which have too often been its characteristics. The creation of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, the move to a University of the Highlands and Islands, an enhanced role for the General Teaching Council (which it must seize), the reconstitution of the Advisory Council are infinitely more relevant to Scottish culture than pseudo folk songs or ghastly Hollywood movies.

The challenge facing the Conservatives resembles that facing other institutions, to preserve values while adapting them to change. The technological revolution could produce the Platonic, meritocratic society described by Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994). An alienated underclass in which people, especially boys, see no role for themselves in society is now of worldwide concern. That is why the next Conservative government must revive its One Nation tradition to ensure that skills are acquired by all and to create a society in which equality means equality of opportunity rather than an egalitarian culture characterised by what R A Butler called "the life of the battery hen".

* Next week: Lindsay Paterson, on reconciling choice and public provision.Malcolm MacKenzie is senior lecturer in education at Glasgow University.

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