Think-tank looks to next election

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Josephine Gardiner on a radical challenge to the ideas of the three main parties.

The school-leaving age should be lowered to 14, teachers should get a six-month sabbatical every five years and children should be taught how to cook, resolve disputes, grow food, speak in public and develop outdoor survival skills, according to a new manifesto.

While most of us await the publication of the main parties' manifestos for the general election on May 1, the think-tank Demos has got in first with a "manifesto for the election after next". The point of this, says Demos director Geoff Mulgan, is to light the way for the victorious party on May 1, sketching how Britain might look in the early years of the new century, and also to show what policy-making would be like if the main parties (particularly Labour) were freed from the straitjacket of caution.

"There's such a fear of new ideas in the main electoral debate," says Geoff Mulgan, "we're trying to make people realise things could be a bit more malleable. I get so depressed by Labour policy-making circles at the moment. "

He insists that the manifesto, The British Spring, is based on extensive research, poll evidence and discussions with focus groups composed of a wide range of people from schoolchildren to foreign observers with an interest in Britain. It is the youth input that is most obvious - there's an odd mixture of idealism and hedonism throughout.

The manifesto says the state should stop victimising unorthodox groups like New Age travellers, drugs should be legalised for over-18s and taxed like cigarettes, prostitution should be licensed and marriage "deregulated" to allow couples to design their own services and decide how long the marriage should last. Designated "tranquillity zones" would be car, aircraft and boat-free, "five minute massage" services should be available on station platforms and open-air cafes should be encouraged.

On education "the great task for the next century is to produce qualities as well as qualifications ... alongside arguments about the national curriculum, we need a national debate about the qualities we want to cultivate in children".

It adds: "Basic life skills are being ignored, as are skills in thinking. " Far more attention needs to be paid to helping parents help their children to learn, giving low-income families access to technology, and to what children do outside school. Community activities would become part of the curriculum, as would lessons in how to be a parent and how to sustain a relationship. Every school pupil would have an "arts passport" giving cut price access to all arts events, schools should introduce lessons in "creative thinking" as in Singapore. The Government should introduce a "service year" for young people involving three-month placements on construction, environmental or inner-city community projects. Private schools "make a mockery of Britain's claim to be an open and mobile society" and should be "reintegrated" into a meritocratic system as fast as possible.

Higher education should become more flexible, able to encompass "everything from a one-week course to a course spread over periods of 10 years", lottery-funded second-chance scholarships would pay for people who left school at 16 to attend the top five universities. More generally, "we need to encourage the habit of learning among the millions who think that it is irrelevant to their lives".

The British Spring is available at Pounds 5 from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4

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