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On top of the world

If we want cities that are the envy of the globe, then our education system must produce world-class citizens to match, says Barry Sheerman.

I WAS recently involved in a seminar that considered the essential ingredients of a world-class city. I was astounded that, in the course of an extended debate, no one mentioned the need for such cities to have world-class citizens.

Every British region is now desperate to ensure that at least one of its cities gets into or remains in the global superleague. There are ambitious plans for centres of urban excellence with shining new transport systems, science parks and business districts. In every case the assumption is that our future citizenry will be highly skilled and superbly educated.

Few people now cling to a belief that education is ethe preserve of an elite. The idea that we should concentrate on educating a mere 5, 10 or even 30 per cent of the population can no longer be justified. The days in which a minority had the privilege of a grammar-school education, with a smaller minority still passing onto higher education, are gone for ever.

Most of us now agree that we must educate all of our people to their full potential. Mastery of basic skills such as literacy and numeracy is an essential prerequisite. But if we are to create world-class citizens for our world-class cities we also need to encourage creativity, flair and imagination. These will be vital for success in the new knowledge-led economy.

The Government's understandable desperation to revolutionise learning raises two problems. The first is that with the fast pace of change it risks causing initiative burn-out. Many of its new ideas are fresh and exciting, but some are either poorly thought through or inadequately explained to the teachers who have to implement them.

The second problem lies with the Government's approach to problem-solving. In many ways, it can be justly proud of this - no ideological hang-ups here, just the right solution for the problem. As a result, we have seen education action zones, specialist schools, the private sector brought in to run under-performing schools or education services, and many more initiatives.

However, if pure pragmatism is itself a doctrine - if not an ideology - it is surely right to question if such pragmatism always has to end up with a private-sector solution. To be sure there are fine public-sector managers around. And, if thse are not enough, why don't we set about creating an Institute of Educational Management to produce more?

Alternatively, why not harness the skills and knowledge of some of our best public education institutions, including our leading universities?

For me, the real black hole is in education and training for young people over 14. The Government has changes afoot and we hope they will work, but, as yet, its plans appear less developed than those for other sectors.

Even this Government, with the best intentions when it comes to education, will fail to fully deliver on some of its promises. It will also at times share its strategy and vision poorly with the education community. At other times, it will just get things plain wrong.

With all this in mind, I am determined that the Commons select committee on education, which I have been asked to chair, will make a significant difference - not only in calling the Government to account, but also in expanding our knowledge and insightby stimulating a creative dialogue.

I am particularly interested in the idea of basing educational practice on sound evidence from research, as well as on successful innovation in this country and abroad. Policies are more likely to work if they are based on evidence rather than emotion.

I am also concerned about the direction of some reforms. In a Commons debate recently, I questioned the serious deficiencies in the Government's longer term thinking on higher education.

My fear is that too much state control and uniformity will seriously harm the world-class university sector that we have, and would like to see flourish. No higher education system can develop without the resources to pursue diversity. Nor can it continue to thrive if it ignores the urgent need to improve salary levels

If we can reform our education system effectively, the rewards will be immense: our world-class citizens will not only have a good grounding in the basics, but also the the creative talent, curiosity and flair that will help them succeed in a highly competitive world.

And these citizens won't eke out a living on the minimum wage. Successful countries with successful economies have to provide the good life, a decent income, a home, good health, holidays and an enriching retirement - all of these springing from the success of their education.

Barry Sheerman chairs the Commons education select committee.

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