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Who's failing now?

It's not so much what they say as the way that they spin it. Seldom can so much educational rhetoric have washed over us as in the past week, and every professional in the business could now be forgiven for simply pressing the off-switch until after the election. For the public voices of both Conservatives and Labour now give such high priority to first, impressing the ordinary voter and, second, outwitting dissidents within their own party that the relevance of the touted reform is lost sight of.

Key tactics here are the advance spin put out to selected newspapers on speeches which turn out on delivery to tell us little new, and judicious background briefings on quasi-announcements.

An example of the first was Labour leader Tony Blair's recent speech, which was in fact a balanced affirmation of both comprehensive schooling and the need to improve it. The "news" his spinners sold was his rejection of mixed-ability teaching in favour of setting. Only the most alert noticed the extent to which mixed-ability teaching has already been phased out of comprehensives (page 5). News management may have convinced the voters, but risked maddening both teachers and Labour purists.

Gillian Shephard may perform better at briefings than in Cabinet (see Diary opposite), and certainly needs to put a brave face on the conflicting policies now gaining ground in Government, in the face of poor education ratings. What we are now being sold in the name of standards is a string of quick-fix, ostensibly radical measures, mostly threatening yet more top-down prescription on professional matters. Since the national curriculum, testing, league tables, inspection, school autonomy and school-based teacher training have all failed to raise standards, it is the teachers, their trainers and Labour local education authorities which are to blame.

So the Education Secretary is currently ubiquitous in the news and on the airwaves, heralding the increase in selection that is now guaranteed to increase both parent choice and standards, and the next shake-up in teacher training (see below), designed to tackle our basic skills deficit. The spur for the timing seems to have been this week's publication of the Competitiveness White Paper, complete with the embarrassing results of Michael Heseltine's comparative skills audit, showing how well we do at higher education qualifications, and how badly at intermediate and basic skills.

Plenty of room then for initiatives from the Department for Education and Employment, and preferably something quicker than the school improvement movement. It is hard to quarrel with a drive on literacy and numeracy, but what defies belief is the double-think endemic in a Government which simultaneously promotes a skills audit demonstrating the need for a universal hike in standards, and a White Paper which will increase selection for the few. For a grammar school in every town, you can also read three secondary moderns in every town; the higher the proportion of pupils grant-maintained or other schools may select, the longer the tail, or "trailing edge" of low-achievers which already characterise Britain's performance in international tables.

It is this large group, rather than the select, or selected, few who demand most urgent action. Basic skills are vital, so is school improvement, but it may be yet more important to focus efforts on vocational education, leading to those intermediate craft and skills qualifications at which we perform so badly in competition with our economic rivals.

Given the constant blast from ministers about the importance of national vocational qualifications, you might be forgiven for thinking that reforms there were well on the way. Only this week Mrs Shephard was telling the Confederation of British Industry about the huge increase in numbers of NVQs and general NVQs but she did not reveal the depth of the Government's concern about quality, rather than quantity.

While ministers have little hesitation in blasting schools and teachers for failure, they have been strangely reluctant to attach public blame to the disastrous weakness of our vocational qualifications system. Yet now we have confirmation (page 1) that desperate measures are planned - in private - to shake it up from top to bottom in pursuit of quality. Initiated by the Employment Department, and employer-led, NVQs were for years kept well clear of an apathetic education establishment, but consequently lacked both educational know-how and content, which is one reason why they compare unfavourably with German equivalents.

There is to be no public admission of failure, though ministerial disappointment has turned to despair at the inability of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to respond effectively to major criticisms from Sir Ron Dearing and others. Higher order vocational skills are more essential to the country's future, but they don't sound as voter-friendly as grammar school promises.

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