Grasping the nettles

7th January 2000 at 00:00
THE educational year will turn on committees of inquiry. These are used by government to focus attention and at the same time to deflect it and to postpone decision-making. So the Cubie committee, whose findings are now in the public arena, was set up to allow the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition to be formed despite the parties' differences on fees.

Likewise, the McCrone committee, which will keep mum until May, was an attempt to sweep up the fallout from the Millennium Review talks on teachers' pay and conditions. In each case, however, the points of contention from which the committees set out prompted them to take a broader look at the underlying problems. So Cubie picks up the debate about student support which the Dearing committee examined in the context of widening access to higher education. The Government brushed aside Dearing's arguments in its rush to impose fees, and Cubie has reopened them. As Tom Kelly argus (FE Focus, page IV), a coherent way ahead has been mapped out. But that does not mean that Cubie's main recommendations will be taken on board.

Politics are rarely straightforward. If the coalition's internal talks needed only to recast Cubie's ideas in a way which made even clearer the abolition of fees for students (as opposed to higher earning graduates) then a form of words could no doubt be devised. But the Treasury and Department for Education south of the border will be putting enormous pressure on Labour ministers. Extra spending in Scotland would mean similar demands in England. Non-devolved budgets would have to support students' living costs.

The McCrone committee will look more broadly at the future of teaching than the Millennium Review. Yet "modernisation" will run into familiar problems. As with Cubie, a coherent package has to be devised, but with no guarantee that it will be implemented.

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