Jeremy Sutcliffe reports on the North of England conference where a former top civil servant made some radical demands. A fundamental shake-up of education, including a new tax on graduates and extra investment in nursery and primary schools, were suggested this week by a former top civil servant.
The proposals from Sir Geoffrey Holland, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, include the strategic goal of raising achievement by 30 per cent within 10 years - without increasing Government spending.
The key to the proposed reforms would be a new further and higher education funding system under which all students over 18 would be eligible for loans that they would repay over a lifetime through a graduate tax. Some of the savings could then be redistributed to pay for nursery expansion, smaller primary classes and extra money for inner-city schools.
Sir Geoffrey's suggestions, put forward at a meeting of the prestigious North of England conference in Gateshead this week, are set to sharpen the debate over priorities when both Conservative and Labour politicians are locked in arguments over nursery education, failing schools and rising primary-class sizes.
The issue of student loans, introduced in 1990 to fund university expansion, is also highly contentious. Last month the Government was forced to announce a 12-month delay in its plans to privatise the Student Loans Company because of lack of interest from the banks, while Labour has still formally to abandon its policy of returning to a grant system.
Sir Geoffrey told the conference, which is attended by local authority representatives, that Britain's declining competitiveness and poor record on education and training meant raising achievement throughout the system was vital.
The underlying problem was how to achieve greater investment in education at a time when the relentless growth in social security spending - currently two-thirds of all public expenditure - meant that other Government departments were left fighting for the "scraps".
"The central fact of life is that there will not be great additional resources for education available from the public purse. That will be true whatever government is in power," said Sir Geoffrey who is now vice-chancellor of Exeter University.
As head of the now defunct Manpower Services Commission during the 1980s, he developed vocational programmes, notably the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, which proved popular with schools as a broader and more practical alternative to traditional academic courses. He also helped to set the goal of offering all young people up to the age of 18 access to good quality education or training within a decade.
Sir Geoffrey said a similar long-term objective could substantially raise achievement over the next decade. To meet that aim, a unified qualification system should be introduced, abolishing the "debilitating" divide between academic and vocational courses.
This would mean merging the two quangoes responsible for exams, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
Students would be able to work at their own pace, achieving qualifications when they were ready. Standards would be secured through rigorous assessment.
Sir Geoffrey also called for schools to make greater use of new technology, rigorous teacher appraisal, performance targets and monitoring, and new local bodies to oversee the "quantity and quality" of education.
The reforms should be drawn up by an independent council, which would be given Pounds 1 billion over 10 years to promote schemes to raise achievement. Local authorities, schools and colleges, would be invited to bid for funds.
The proposals draw on recommendations from the independent National Commission on Education and from the Royal Society of Arts, which two years ago proposed shifting resources from universities to boost investment in early-years education. There is already widespread support for unifying qualifications.
Sir Geoffrey was appointed permanent secretary at the Department of Employment in 1988 and moved to the DFE in 1993. After a difficult period working for the former Education Secretary John Patten, he left in 1994 to take up his present job at Exeter University.