Let's all get behind the wheel

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Educational reform has come a long way, but must go further - and we should all be in the driving seat, says Sir John Cassels

In November 1993 the independent National Commission on Education published its report Learning to succeed. It covered education and training at all levels and in all parts of the United Kingdom. Well over 30,000 copies of the report were soon circulated bringing much debate at conferences and seminars nationwide.

You could not say the report was complacent. It pointed out how far the achievement of 16 and 18-year-olds in England lagged behind that in Germany, France and Japan. It brought out how prevalent poor literacy and limited skills in maths were among young adults. It showed how unevenly under-fives were provided for, and how deeply this affected their life chances. It underlined how big a part chance played in the quality of education that pupils received in school.

But you could not say either that the commission was negative. It adopted a vision for the future of education and training, one which took account of the revolution sweeping the world whereby knowledge had become the basic economic resource of industrialised countries, rather than capital, natural resources or labour. It applied that vision to all aspects of current provision. Not surprisingly, it had a good deal to say.

Ten years on, the commission's follow-up group, which is led by Lord Walton and John Raisman, respectively chairman and deputy chairman of the commission, judges that things have got better in many ways. There is much better nursery education, and primary education has moved forward strongly.

Standards achieved by able pupils in secondary schools have risen markedly.

Many more young people and adults are benefiting from the vigorous expansion of further and higher education.

On the other hand, some 600,000 children under three live in poverty. There has been a disappointing lack of progress in many secondary schools, and the shortfall in the numbers and quality of secondary teachers is a continuing worry. In industry there are too few people qualified at craft and technician level, and it badly affects our productivity.

The verdict has to be that, despite the progress made, there is much more that needs to be done.

The follow-up group decided to select six areas that seemed most in need of fresh thought and action and to invite expert authors to contribute chapters. These chapters form the bulk of our publication Learning to succeed: the next decade, and they make fascinating reading. They cover apprenticeship and the skills gap ( Richard Layard, LSE ); disadvantage, disaffection and the need for reform (Martin Johnson, IPPR); learning is learnable, and we ought to teach it (Guy Claxton, Bristol university); a Charter for Teaching (John Furlong, Oxford university); Higher Education: a new world? (David Watson, Brighton university); and making resources work (David Curtis, Jenny Crighton and Manjit Benning, Audit Commission).

The group foresaw that in the next decade there would be many challenges to overcome, some old and some new: these would include the massive economic development of competitor nations such as China and India, far-reaching changes in work and living patterns in this country and, at some point, especially tight constraints on public resources.

Against this background, three themes emerged strongly from the chapters written by our experts. First, nothing short of a transformation is needed to tackle the quite unacceptable level of under-achievement by up to 40 per cent of young people, and the growing gap between their future life chances and those of their peers.

Second, the country has many excellent teachers, but the capability of the teaching workforce can be radically improved so as to enable educational achievement truly to flourish.

Third, resources at all levels in our system can and must be used to much greater effect.

If, in conclusion, there is one over-arching message that keeps coming through, it is this: the concentration of educational decision-making at the centre has led to a situation where "command and control" dominates, and this has now reached a point where it is seriously counter-productive.

The group says that the time has come for the Government to enable the system to evolve on a basis of much greater mutual respect and trust between all the parties involved.

"This does not at all imply letting go and hoping for the best. What it does require is open discussion at many levels about ends and means, and a clear distinction in practice between strategic aims and the practical means of achieving them. We would expect this sharing of responsibility to release energy, encourage innovation and build capability in highly productive ways."

Sir John Cassels is director of the National Commission on Education's follow-up group. Copies of the report are available from the Education Research Centre, University of Brighton, pound;5. Email: education.research@brighton.ac.uk

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