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Wish-list to last will and testament

Susan Young previews the National Commission on Education's last word. Eighteen months ago saw the much-heralded publication of what cynics would call the most ambitious wish-list in British educational history. Next Friday sees the release of what might be described as the independent National Commission on Education's last will and testament - a review of developments since its report Learning To Succeed came out in November 1993.

As a document, it is highly unlikely to be as upbeat as its predecessor and may even be regarded as an outpouring of deathbed honesty from an inquiry team which will cease to be at the end of June.

For while the far-reaching recommendations of Learning To Succeed may, as the commissioners believe, have sparked important debates about how education should tackle the challenges of the next century, even the document's greatest fans cannot claim that a great deal of practical difference has been made.

Indeed, as NCE director Sir John Cassels acknowledges, in several ways the situation of education in England and Wales has even worsened in the past 18 months. One firm recommendation, to reduce primary class sizes, is likely to be entirely reversed by the effects of this year's education budgets, the Government's refusal to fund the teachers' pay award and the resulting enforced redundancies.

A swift glance through the commission's other original recommendations makes interesting reading. They included a drive to raise literacy and numeracy; subjects to be well taught by competent teachers; the raising of school achievement in deprived areas; the introduction of a new General Education Diploma at ordinary and advanced levels; 90 per cent of under-18s to be working for a national qualification by 2000; a new funding system for university students; promotion of lifelong learning; a Department for Education and Training; greater public and private investment, and the constant raising of achievement and examination of progress.

Movement is apparent in a very few areas. The recommendation to improve the national curriculum framework may have been met by Sir Ron Dearing's review, although whether this satisfies the commission remains to be seen. The suggested General Education Diploma may also depend on Sir Ron, thanks to his current inquiry into 16-19 provision, although as Sir John wryly points out, it would need a Kremlinologist to decode the exact terms of his Government remit.

He said: "One would love to see things move faster. I did think more would happen. I thought something was going to happen on nursery education quite quickly. I think I was more optimistic about funding than has proved to be the case. It is a surprise to me that we have funding cuts this year, and I find that disappointing. The ideas have moved forward, the action has lagged behind. Some credit, some debit."

Which leaves the recommendation that nursery education should be made available to all three and four year-olds - a radical idea at the time, instantly decried by then Education Secretary John Patten, who, describing himself as "Honest John", said it was unaffordable. Within months it appeared to be an idea whose time had come, picked up as a "firm commitment" by Prime Minister John Major, who subsequently shuffled Patten out of the Cabinet in part because of his hostile stance on the plan.

This sequence of events is regarded as "most helpful" by Sir John, largely because it propelled Learning To Succeed into the headlines and public consciousness, sparking a debate on nursery provision at least. Some 30, 000 copies of the Pounds 4.99 paperback were subsequently sold, apparently largely to teachers and other professionals.

Given the history of the project, it might have been unrealistic to have expected more Government action. Its genesis came in a speech made by Sir Claus Moser at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1990, which drew attention to serious shortcomings in Britain's education and training. What was needed, he said, was "a review which would be visionary about the medium and long-term future facing our children and this country; treating the system in all its inter-connected parts; and last, but not least, considering the changes in our working and labour market scene." He wanted a Royal Commission. The Thatcher government didn't. Yet so much support emerged for the idea that the BAAS resolved to set up an independent inquiry, funded for around Pounds 1 million by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Perhaps this time round, things will be different. Two launch conferences are to be held, one in London and one in Sunderland. At the first, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard will speak: at the other, her Labour counterpart, David Blunkett.

Although the contents of the new report, Learning To Succeed: The Way Ahead, are a closely-guarded secret for a further week, it seems likely from Sir John's mood that its tone, at least, will be far angrier and more urgent than that of its predecessor.

But although he believes the Government could do far more to lead the country on the importance of education, Sir John appears to believe that there is a British problem of general lack of interest in its importance. "Education hasn't moved up the agenda, there isn't enough clamouring for things to happen. Perhaps that's changing a bit in the reaction to the cuts. But somehow it doesn't seem to have the same bite as in a country that's hungry, or countries like Japan, where families put money into it."

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