Agenda benders

June 16, 1995

Royal Commissions have been as rare as England Test cricket victories in recent years. They did not fit with 1980s anti-consensus politics. Certainly education did not rate one. It fell therefore to a handful of private individuals and philanthropic foundations, pre-eminently the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Rowntree Trusts, to put together a posse to give education Royal Commission-style consideration.

The National Commission on Education was set up in 1991 after Claus Moser's appeal for a Royal Commission was snubbed by the Government but backed by many frustrated and influential voices. Today the NCE publishes its valedictory report (page 3).

First of the commission's achievements may turn out to be a new (more republican?) model for such inquiries. While it shared some of the characteristics of its blue-blooded cousin - a sprinkling of nobles, knights and vice chancellors and a remit broad enough to accommodate lateral thinking - it took its origin from public concern not from a Government desire to prevaricate and it operated with exemplary openness.

Being independent of politicans and civil servants it has been able to be "unhelpful", pointing out, for example, the human cost of change in higher education with salaries for academics now nearly 25 per cent lower than for professionals of comparable status. It has met head-on a number of the big issues: funding, post-16 qualifications, employer training.

It has dared to recommend a redistribution of resources in education that would involve students paying up to 20 per cent of course costs. It has proposed a post-16 general national diploma combining vocational and academic elements. It has explored the possibility of employer-sponsored individual training accounts. It backs the call for a combined Department for Education and Training.

This is an unhierarchical vision in keeping with NCE's lack of royal credentials. When the commission began its work, some of these ideas were seen as dangerous stuff, putting at risk all manner of sacred cows. Emerging in research reports, first set out fully in the 1993 report, Learning to Succeed, they have now, however, become so much part of the currency of debate that the most shocking thing is the Government's lethargic response.

But even that is now evaporating. The Downing Street rumour mill prepared for this week's report with news of nursery school vouchers for all four year olds. At the Department for Education, Ron Dearing is at work reviewing post-16 qualifications. And not only the Government is affected. Plans for a Learning Bank to bring together contributions to further and higher education and training are advancing in the inner sanctums of the Labour Party. So, as they disband, the commissioners and their sponsors can take much satisfaction in knowing that they have shifted the national education agenda.

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