How radical a second term?

15th June 2001 at 01:00
THE Government's new priorities can be summed up as: Skills, Skills, Skills. Basic skills training for 750,000 functionally illiterate and innumerate adults topped the list of Labour education manifesto pledges. Now a remodelled Department ranks "skills" alongside "education" with equal force. The new ministerial team reflects this agenda. There is even a minister for 14-19 (see pages 5-7), underlining the call for more work-related courses. This promises a radical rethink for secondary education, building on the revolution already begun in some schools and further education colleges. Plans are well advanced for many more specialist schools, vocational centres of excellence in colleges and greater movement of pupils between schools and colleges. Common inspection and quality controls will govern all 14 to 19-year-olds wherever they learn or train.

The new Learning and Skills Council will influence more than college and sixth-form students. It will reach down to options at 13. And if the new Department for Education and Skills does the job properly, there will be no differences between schools and colleges in the quality of eucation provided, the chances offered to students and the rewards for improved recruitment.

Tony Blair has promised a more radical second term. But just how radical will that prove in education? Will schools and colleges hang on to the significant minority of students quitting at or before 16 from lack of enthusiasm, not low ability?

GCSE looks increasingly irrelevant as fewer leave at 16. The new sixth-form exam regime seems like the start of reform rather than the end point for a 14-19 curriculum in need of a more sensible marriage of academic and vocational options. The inquiry into AS-levels (page 3) must do more than tinker with timetables. David Hargreaves, heading the inquiry, should assume the widest remit to look at how the problems of 14-19 have led to this bottle-neck. The new minister will need courage to take on those who cling to the A-level gold standard. But a truly radical reform programme could provide the coherence and opportunities which have been buried for too long in political obfuscation. For this to come about, Estelle Morris and her team need all their skills, skills, skills.

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