Minister abhors the information vacuum
Education minister Kim Howells launched a huge intelligence-gathering drive this week to give schools and colleges the comprehensive national statistics they need to plan for the future.
High quality information about education and the economy was essential to make Labour's reforms work, he said, but much basic data is not available. For example, the new Government has had to do a survey to find out how many schools are connected to the Internet.
Dr Howells, the minister responsible for lifelong learning, insisted that the information gap must be filled to ensure education and training meets social and economic needs.
He said: "There's an assumption that things are working, It seems a very unsatisfactory way for a Government ministry to operate."
Ministers want a national database of the education and training of all 14 to 21-year-olds to be available. The system would help monitor the success of the efforts to get young unemployed people off benefits and would help match training to skills shortages.
A wide-ranging consultation process has already been launched, and Dr Howells said he hoped proposals would be ready in time for a White Paper due in the autumn.
Dr Howells said: "We want to try and pull together the information which exists - particularly on 14 to 21-year-olds because they are the target for a lot of initiatives -and focus on being able to collect that information in one place so we can start to tell how well money is spent."
He said there was relatively little information about some of the country's most deprived areas, and work was needed to bring together unemployment and other statistics to inform schools, colleges and universities.
"It's very useful if you have some figures to say if kids coming out of schools are meeting the requirements of the job market. There are lots and lots of very interesting statistical exercises which would benefit regions, and in terms of the way we view regional policy we should have that information. "
He said high-quality information was also needed if Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations for closer links between higher and further education were to be implemented.
He praised efforts by Gloucestershire County Council and the local training and enterprise council to run a full skills audit as an example of good practice that should be promoted.
The county's labour market information unit launched an audit of skills shortages to back up anecdotal reports that businesses could not find suitably qualified and experienced staff.
Researchers found a shortage of skilled workers in engineering and computing, both key areas for a region reliant on high-tech defence engineering companies.
Training and enterprise council staff are following up their research by working with companies to try to identify ways of recruiting the staff they need.
Dr Howells also praised work to analyse student recruitment by postcode, to give a guide to the social effects of education.
A key part of the project was to spread good practice and encourage consistent collection of information across the country.
But he stressed that a national database of information would include safeguards for civil liberties, and would be used solely for research and planning purposes.
Previous attempts to bring together central information on students have proved complex, but Dr Howells said he did not expect the new project to be costly. Indeed, he believed there was scope for saving money by avoiding duplication of research.