Gillian Shephard's heavy hints to the secondary heads that the Government is getting the message about education funding made a good start to the conference season. And her announcement at the same meeting of a l6-plus review was another shrewd and welcome move. Ever since she became Education Secretary, Mrs Shephard has had to concentrate on clearing up other people's messes on curriculum, testing and, funding, rather than embark on her own initiatives.
Even nursery expansion has been John Major's baby, its progress beset by the Prime Minister's own prejudices and predilections. Now she has seized the chance to make her own mark on education and training post-l6 - the last great unreconstructed area.
It is a challenge she has had her eye on since she was Employment Secretary, but which education ministers are always more reluctant to tackle because of the sacred nature of A-levels, standing protected in the path of any movement towards coherence and progression designed to meet the needs of all students post-l6. Mrs Shephard herself says that "small numbers of top-flight specialists are not enough in the global economy."
As it is, she can only be making a start on the issue. With a final report due from Sir Ron Dearing in l996, there won't be too much time for fundamental change before an election (though there could be the chance to pre-empt the Labour party on manifesto commitments), and Sir Ron's brief is cautiously narrow. Clearly, the first consideration had to be to avoid frightening the Right-wing horses; hence the promise " to maintain the rigour of GCE A-levels. "
The quality of national vocational qualifications and their general, more educational, version the GNVQ, is another key issue. But of course at the heart of the consensus of headteachers, college principals and employers on which Mrs Shephard is building is the search for greater coherence and breadth of study post-l6, without any compromise of standards. It is significant that she has also made a strong commitment to core skills for more l6 to l9-year-olds, the repertoire of basic literacy, numeracy, communication, language and technological skills which the Confederation of British Industry is as keen to see embraced in A-levels as the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets.
As Mrs Shephard says, there is a powerful consensus for change post-l6, but there isn't much doubt that it seeks more fundamental and iconoclastic reform than is suggested by her constrained proposals for review. Can Sir Ron Dearing manage to widen his remit?
This is his next great challenge, now that he has settled the national curriculum and testing crisis, and one that is so close to his own heart that he must have played an important part in persuading the Government to let him take it on. Without such a brief, would Gillian Shephard have been able to persuade him to stay on at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and without Sir Ron, could she have found anyone else to tackle such an impossible task?
It is a personal brief for him, rather than for SCAA, for he must work with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications too, and with the Employment Department and Welsh Office as well as the Education Secretary. He set his sights on the post-l6 period in his report on the 5 to l6 curriculum, when the introduced the idea of a l4 to l9 continuum, and has really been waiting for his remit ever since. Admittedly, the pilot l4 to l6 vocational courses meant to lead into it got off to a bumpy start, but the personal and ideological clashes that beset that launch may be as nothing to the differences on philosophy, approach and assessment that lie ahead.
Sir Ron, however, already has an excellent working accord with Michael Heron at the NCVQ, and comes to the task with few preconceived ideas beyond the need to widen opportunities rather than narrow them down. Nearly all the bridge-building ideas like modularisation, credit transfer, "horizontal" AS-levels, diplomas, baccalaureates and a wider menu of A-levels have already been well-rehearsed, and in the time available Sir Ron may be sorting through for consensus rather than creating new solutions.
He has already committed himself to research on drop-out rates and experience elsewhere, and may be well advised to enquire why the growth in the staying-on rate appears to have peaked. Is it, as the latest report on school-leaver destinations from the Careers Services suggests, that parity of esteem between the three learning routes is not yet established, or because aggressive marketing between schools, colleges and training providers may not be in the best interests of individual young people?
We can be sure that Sir Ron Dearing will have the best interests of young people at heart in his enquiries. And if he can manage to win sufficient agreement on this daunting brief to make a start on merging those parallel pathways, perhaps he should turn his attention to the nursery tangle next.