In the current phase of point-scoring political debate, it is salutary to read an objective account from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of the real state of progress on education and training in this country. Whatever might be the conventional view on the bureaucratic jargon to be expected from such international bodies, the report on the UK published last week is a lucid and authoritative document which the Government was glad enough to quote in support of its economic policies.
Ministers remained silent, however, on the education and training chapter, which sharpens a cool analysis of the trends and facts with some trenchant views on the damaging effects of the market approach, especially when combined with underfunding. And all this from a group of economists representing the developed nations of the world, notable usually for the rigour of its right-wing approach.
Much of the report's historical background covers similar territory to Correlli Barnett in his recent renewed attack on the British malaise, of which the most persistent symptom has been the nurturing of an academic elite, while undervaluing the vocational and technical. While remaining sceptical about the long-term cost-benefits of most training schemes since the l970s, the report is able to note with approval the reforms in education and training dating from the late l980s and the much higher proportion of young people staying on in either education or training in l99394, as compared with l987.
The good news was that this trend was reflected in higher levels of qualifications in the workforce over the same period, though the report's authors could not be sure whether this was inspired by recession-led fear of unemployment, or more positive evidence of the growth of a new education and training culture. Recent reforms were steps in the right direction, but would skill shortages re-emerge to prevent us breaking out permanently from a "low skills equilibrium"?
At the heart of the OECD's critique of the effects of Conservative government policies over the last l6 years, is an analysis of the attack on public services thought to be over-dominated by the interests of producers, by opening them up to market forces. Not only were the principles necessary for the operation of an effective market not demonstrated as fully applicable - or suited - to education or training, but they could be dangerous when combined with financial measures.
"Increasing financial pressure on agents within under-funded quasi-markets can encourage opportunistic behaviour, to the detriment of professional commitment and quality standards," conclude the authors. The message is one that will have resonance both in the league-table jungle of county and grant-maintained schools, but also in a college sector where the Further Education Funding Council now feels impelled to draw new ethical boundaries as untramelled franchising chases expansion targets.
All OECD country reports are approved by the relevant government before publication, so we can assume that this one has been negotiated. But it needs to be recorded that many of the developments the report records as most promising, such as the GNVQs for both the l6 - l8 age group and the pre-l6 pilots, as well as youth credits and modern apprenticeships, are still a long way from proving themselves.
As to work-based training, the OECD notes that the diffusion of NVQs has been much slower than that of school-based qualifications, and that a significant number leave Youth Training and Training for Work without any qualification, or only one at a very low level: "Employer-provided training remains predominantly short, informal and uncertified . . . the revolution in employer-sponsored training which NVQs have been expected to facilitate is progressing at a slow pace." And it remains to be seen, the report notes, whether the labour market will adequately reward the increasing numbers of young people who opt for full-time vocational studies at age l6-l8.
The report was obviously written before the recent amalgamation of the education and employment departments or the publication of Sir Ron Dearing's l6-l9 report, both of which are likely to have given the authors grounds for more optimism. So far the verdict is mixed, with increases in staying-on rates and qualifications recorded as the most promising and welcome results of reform, but serious reservations about the damage market forces can do to quality and equity which the Government needs to accept as seriously as the good news.