Leader: Clear thinking at the top can curb 'initiative-itis'

April 5, 2002

Signs of hope at the heart of the Labour Party: higher education's old friends, David Triesman and Charles Clarke are planning some lateral thinking about the big trends in society, the impact of scientific knowledge and the role of politics in relation to them. This is the sort of thing the once-upon-a-time Central Policy Review staff used to do before they were abolished. It is badly needed again.

Just how badly is demonstrated in just one part of the policy jungle by John Field's statement of the obvious this week on "initiative-itis" in lifelong learning. Policies in post-compulsory education since 1997 have been sadly muddled and ineffective. By contrast, policies for schools - where a relatively simple objective (that children should do better in their exams and in national tests) was clearly stated and backed by cash and coercion - have been effective.

In post-compulsory education, objectives have never been that clear. Social engineering, economic advantage, overseas earnings and cost-cutting have jostled for priority. There has been a raft of reports: Dearing (lifelong learning through higher education), Kennedy (give priority to further education), Fryer (all players must collaborate if anything is to be achieved) and Moser (one in five of the adult population lacks basic skills). But where radical action was recommended, it has largely been sidelined by vested interests, not least by universities.

Instead of deciding priorities and building well-researched, coherent programmes to match, we have a plethora of ill-coordinated schemes. There is the University for Industry; the e-university; the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts; the New Deal for the young unemployed; the Excellence Challenge programme; and the Basic Skills Agency to name a few. There are pilot areas for education maintenance allowances and trials for foundation degrees. There were individual learning accounts. Funding arrangements for further education and training have been expensively reorganised. Each new initiative has been backed by grandiose rhetoric. Most have had too little money.

Perhaps sensing the muddle, prime minister Tony Blair drew the big picture, setting his 50 per cent target for participation of 18 to 30-year-olds in some sort of higher education by 2010. Because it is the only clearly stated objective around, this target has assumed a totemic significance. But again there is a lack of clear thinking. If the aim is to ensure a supply of skilled personnel to the workplace so that economic growth (when it reappears) does not fuel inflation, it does not much matter who the participants are as long as they get their heads round the work.

But if the aim is to crack the grip of privileged social groups on the education that leads to lucrative employment - an objective with which the education secretary, Estelle Morris, is clearly in sympathy - it is much harder to achieve. To win this one, it matters who enrols. Recruiting the thicker children of the richer classes will not do. But attracting the bright children of the poorer classes - dogged as they are by bad schools, parents who find education daunting and aversion to debt - is a much harder and more expensive challenge.

At least, thanks to the many wheezes of the past five years, there is now some indication of what might work. Direct contact between higher education and schools in education action zones looks promising. Help with childcare has apparently encouraged mature students back to study. Education maintenance allowances are helping improve crucial participation rates at 16 in the pilot areas. The postcode premium is concentrating minds in higher education. But all this boils down to money. The real trouble with post-16 policy is that not only is the government unclear about its aims, it is also unwilling to provide the means.

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