Even Michael Heseltine couldn't excite the House of Commons about his latest Competitiveness White Paper on Monday. It is true his audience was impatient for him to finish so that they could hear Sir Jerry Wiggins grovel, but this Mark 2 model lacks the razzmatazz of last year's prototype. It has less money attached and is meant to provide an update on progress, but much of it is a cover-up for lack of action.
The education and training section heralds some of the most positive developments, as well as a few of the lamest excuses. Upgrading the national targets is the main plus item, though that exercise has been conducted independently of any White Paper. The promise that core skills will be required from all students has been long awaited, and if it takes a cross-departmental initiative to give it a push then that is welcome, though questions remain. Will literacy for scientists and numeracy and computer skills for arts students be embodied in their A-level papers, rewarded with vocational acronyms, or something completely different to impress employers? Over to Sir Ron Dearing again.
The extra money for training teachers to handle General National Vocational Qualifications is also overdue good news. Their unfamiliarity with this type of course has been one of the main impediments to its smooth introduction.
Apart from that, the questions and cover-ups between the lines are there to be dug for. Whatever happened to Headlamps? The money promised for training new headteachers was one of the best bits in last year's White Paper, a scheme was expected to start in April and now, without explanation, there is a promise for next September. And why do we need more legislation to ensure impartial careers guidance for all school-leavers, when the careers service is still deep in transition as the result of the last round of privatising legislation?
Part of the reason is the chaos in post-l6 choices which now exists, which the White Paper recognises but fails to solve. The Government has dug itself into a hole on sixth forms, and it is still digging. Having given the further education colleges nominal independence, it has also placed them firmly in a planned economy through the Further Education Funding Council. Schools, however, have been given freedom to start new sixth forms in competition, still have favourable funding through weighted budgets and are now increasingly sprouting an unofficial sixth without so much as a request for permission from the Secretary of State (front page).
The colleges have complained bitterly about this unfair competition without much sympathy from ministers. What brought it home to the Government was the discovery that sixth-form funding stood in the way of post-l6 vouchers, or the learning credits promised for all 16 to 19-year-olds in the first White Paper. As anyone sensible could have told them then, and as has now been reluctantly accepted from the consultants' report, you can't extend voucherscredits from training providers to sixth forms unless they are all funded on the same basis. Shock, horror. Either another cherished voucher scheme bites the dust or something has to be done about the equally cherished sixth form.
What the White Paper predictably does is to compromise, bluster, and make hopeful promises. There is talk of a common funding formula. Education Secretary Gillian Shephard admits that she can't find a better phrase than "level playing-field". But all the White Paper promises is to "investigate whether there is a case for encouraging a more consistent approach to funding methodologies across the sectors."
Although tougher performance goals may discourage some uneconomic expansion, it is hard to envisage how anything effective can be achieved without funding all 16-19 provision through the same agency, but that is almost certainly too big an upheaval to contemplate before a general election. Would it mean more power to the FEFC or to the Funding Agency for Schools? What would be the knock-on effect on school budgets? And would it have to wait for a major rethink on the equitable funding of schools?
Meanwhile the White Paper tackles easier questions and promises even more of a free-for-all in the sector, and Education Ministers have so far failed to stop a proliferation of unofficial small sixth forms unlikely to be able to offer a full and proper choice to 16 and 17-year-olds. It is no use bemoaning the drop-out rate at l7 if you tacitly encourage provision that cannot deliver the required choice.
Ambitious new national targets have wide backing, and give local education authorities, schools and colleges a valuable focus for endeavour. But they will never be attained by 2000 unless opportunities are widened for students on both A-levels and GNVQs, with quality assurance to provide genuine equivalence, and that cannot happen through selfish, small sixth forms and unlevel funding. Ministers know something must be done about post-l6 incoherence, but the White Paper is not a convincing harbinger of change.