Leader: Frustrated sector could profit from Clarke's clout

November 1, 2002

Never has a new education secretary been given so much advice and been so unlikely to take notice of it. Although he has made a career out of being his own man, politicians, pundits and education professionals have been queueing up to tell Charles Clarke how he should do his job. Anyone would have thought he was taking over a service in crisis, rather than one that has been producing consistently improved results. There are big decisions looming, not least in higher education, but they are not symptomatic of a failed approach.

Mr Clarke has an early opportunity, in the government's review of 14 to 19 qualifications, to put right the one serious mess, which was Curriculum 2000. Elsewhere in schools, teacher shortages have eased and GCSE pass rates continue to rise. Even at A level, the original problem was that the grades were too high, not too low. There is plenty of scope for improvement in state schools, but it would be surprising if Mr Clarke opted for a radical policy change.

Higher education may be different because, unlike Estelle Morris, he is known to have strong views on the sector. His presidency of the National Union of Students was a long time ago, but it is a post that inevitably leaves its holder with a residual interest in the policy debate. The deferral of the impending strategy paper shows his determination to leave his mark on the proposals. Universities will not be pleased at this latest postponement, and they will be particularly upset that the financial settlement for next year will not be revealed until January.

Despite this, they should bear in mind that Mr Clarke has the opportunity to make universities and colleges feel more part of the national agenda. Ms Morris did more than any of her predecessors to raise the status of schoolteachers. But while those in higher education have stretched resources to extend access and research, their successes have never been given the same recognition. Mr Clarke is not one to massage egos, but by engaging in serious debate on the strategy paper, he could at least begin to raise campus morale.

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