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What do we need in 1996?

Just what sort of year does education need, and deserve, in l996? It would be hard to find a more apposite theme than that chosen by Geoffrey Holland for this week's North of England conference. "Raising Achievement" is the aspiration currently claimed by every political party, guru, industrialist and ambitious head in the business, though not all of them are as clear-sighted as Sir Geoffrey's presidential.

He began with some international comparisons which are frequently quoted, but sadly just as frequently ignored. The World Economic Forum reported in l995 that we had dropped from l4th to l8th in the global competitiveness league, let down by the quality of our workforce and education system.

Also last year, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research summed up a decade of findings: though the proportion of the workforce with a university degree is roughly the same in Britain as in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the proportion holding an intermediate qualification here is far lower.

The gap is even wider on craft-level qualifications, while comparative academic indicators at all levels in key subjects are a constant cause for concern. And this shortfall in skills, qualifications and education has been inexorably matched by output and quality deficits in both our manufacturing and service industries.

The lessons to be drawn from all this take us back to the opening question. for successful output measures depend not just on the quality of schools and vocational education - though these are essential components - but of the whole education system, from nursery to lifelong learning. Equally important, they involve everyone in that system, not just a restricted elite who will go on to degrees and careers at the top for, as we have seen, Britain already holds its own at that level. It is the other groups, the majority who may need different qualifications but an equally sound education, who must now command comparable attention, quality and resourcing.

So a new year wish-list should start by giving all children the chance to begin school on equal terms. That means nursery education which gives every child the stimulation that good homes already provide, which opens up the social world of peer group and adults, and which is available for all families when and where they need it.

At school level, where financial attrition continues but the curriculum is settling down, we must all agree by now that raising achievement has to start with raising the expectations of parents, pupils and teachers. But the real parting of the ways now is between those who put the emphasis on improvement, and those who want to hammer failure, though these are really two sides of the same coin. Plain speaking on failure has to precede necessary action, but a new year resolution to accentuate the positive wouldn't come amiss now. Real school improvement has to depend upon the commitment and cooperation of teachers themselves. They have to be in on reform as professionals from the beginning, not thrust in to defending a minority of poor teachers who they - better than anyone - know to be inadequate.

As to further education, the colleges must be the powerhouse of that vocational education revolution which should haul the country up the international tables on intermediate and craft-level qualifications, but their precarious independence is increasingly threatened by tight funding, and neither their role nor their qualifications command due respect. And meanwhile the universities squeal through their own prolonged financial squeeze while crucial questions about access versus a graduate tax remain unanswered, and lifelong learning fails to get the expected Government boost.

The outlook shouldn't have been so messy and pessimistic, given the long-awaited merger of the Education and Employment departments, which should have put education and training on course to hit those ambitious national targets, involving the many rather than the few.

The trouble is that every Government initiative since the merger seems to have been aimed at the few: nursery vouchers which will skew money towards four-year-olds without ensuring adequate provision; new measures to boost grant-maintained schools and selection; l6 - l9 reform expected to strengthen the A-level route while vocational quality is left in doubt; and an attempt to privatise student loans which has failed even before the legislation.

It seems strange that an education policy which offers so little to most users of the education system, and which is so far adrift from national needs and targets should be seen as a vote-winner.

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