Still waiting for equality

27th June 2003 at 01:00
"EDUCATIONAL inequalities which make it impossible for the nation to develop the full power of all its children are not merely offensive to humanity... they are an economic burden which we cannot afford to carry."

Was that: a) Gordon Brown?

b) Tony Blair?

c) David Blunkett?

Answer: none of the above - it was RH Tawney, in 1934.

His widely shared view led to the passing of the 1944 Education Act. The war was not yet over but time and effort was devoted to planning the future education of the nation. By contrast, the other great reforms to health and welfare services had to wait for the peace. Yet, nearly 60 years later, we still languish in the lower reaches of international education league tables, repeating the anxieties about the need to improve the general educational attainment of our nation and the level of skilled labour.

Progress has been made, but in international comparisons we still have fewer young people staying on in learning until age 18, more adults who have real problems with basic skills and clear shortfalls of skills in our national workforce. And we still have to tackle the years of under-investment and the level of inequality that divides our educational system.

Attempts to tackle these issues have of course been made; most recently with a breathtaking series of education Acts over the past 20 years, the most significant in 2000. The current Government has undoubtedly made - and maintained - a strong commitment. However, outcomes are what matter, and there are no quick fixes. Nevertheless, in the past two years the Learning and Skills Council and its many partners have raised post-16 participation to its highest level and helped about half a million people improve their basic literacy and numeracy. Moreover, we have begun to tackle some of the key skill shortages still affecting our economy: for example, in the rail and construction industries, in manufacturing and automotive sectors; even the fabled shortage of plumbers is being tackled.

This has needed changes, both within the LSC and the wider sector: a new approach needs a new kind of organisation, with a new way of working - one which emphasises local ambition and collaboration rather than competition or central direction. In that spirit of collaboration, we are introducing a more strategic three-year funding system, with greater degrees of trust and responsibility. The first trial systems have already begun. Much more needs to be done, but it is a start, albeit an unglamorous one - real progress is rarely made in any other way.

Most of the time I am optimistic; there is a great deal of innovative work being done. The development of a 14 to 19 phase moves us towards a norm of people staying in learning until 18, with a broader range of curriculum options. The resurgence of apprenticeships is part of this. We are developing effective ways of improving skill levels in industry, while UfI and other forms of e-learning are proving immensely popular.

That said, there are still perceived divisions in status between "academic" and "vocational" learning, and opposition exists to the broadening of the pre-16 curriculum. We need to show that, if it is to serve us properly, the curriculum needs to develop to reflect changes in the world. This evolution has happened before: we no longer study rhetoric or alchemy. Securing investment for our education system remains a challenge. We have a growing population of 16 to 18-year-olds - there will be 100,000 more in the next five years - and we want more of them to stay on in learning.

Meanwhile, forecasts for economic growth are less optimistic while pressure from other areas of public spending continues to grow. Clearly, we need to improve efficiency in educational institutions and in dealing with the overhead costs of the education system.

But our greatest challenge, if we are to reverse our relative decline, is to reach a national consensus about what we are trying to achieve in education, and then sustain that.

We have some very big choices to make and a drive to be sustained over 10 years or more. The educational investment cycle equates to three or more electoral cycles, so how can we fit the two together more effectively ? Can we find a way to reconcile this consistency with maintaining an effective democracy? I hope we can.

What a satisfying way of celebrating the 60th anniversary of 1944 that would be.

John Harwood is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council

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