Alison Wolf

December 12, 2003

Free driving lessons and touch-typing instruction are what the government could be doling out to grab some positive headlines this Christmas

In the past few weeks, much of the Cabinet must have wished they had stuck to pork-barrel politics. Special favours, liberally bestowed, speed your political troops into the right lobby. Measures of principle, including the higher education bill, breed trouble. So, in the spirit of a Dickensian Christmas, let me offer the government a couple of new policies with which to grab the headlines. Both should play well in Plymouth and Penrith and calm backbenchers worried about anything that isn't a universal benefit, good for their constituency and appealing in marginal seats.

First, give everyone ten free driving lessons. That will cover all the young, so there will be no middle-class parents feeling discriminated against. It would also look pretty progressive where adults are concerned, since it is mostly the poor who don't drive. Pensioners could get refresher lessons. If what you want is job-relevant skills, there really is no beating it.

Debates about the content of education tend to revolve around maths, science, reading, writing and the development of critical thinking. Mike Tomlinson, head of the current inquiry into upper secondary education, has been earning plaudits recently with a call for more essay-writing and less regurgitation of facts. As a pointy-headed academic, I'm all in favour of this. But I have to admit that I have no evidence that essay-writing skills are much use in the job market outside of academe and the civil service.

Driving is something else. A whole clutch of jobs can't be carried out without a full, clean driving licence. Many others are out of reach for those who can't drive to and from them. If you rely on public transport, you spend more hours of the week travelling, and fewer labouring productively or, indeed, having fun. This is also, of course, why people spend so much money learning to drive - proving that we have no objection to paying to learn skills that we know are useful and aren't used to getting for free.

Once started, though, those free lessons will be hard to cancel. However, if the government offered 20, rather than ten, to any 18-year-old in education or training, they'd probably hit all their participation targets instantly, doubling that warm Christmas glow.

With that sorted, their second move could be adding touch-typing to the curriculum, as US schools have done for decades. We now have suite upon information technology suite in our schools and colleges, keyboards at the ready. Even better, this is one of the areas where good teaching software really is available, so it is just a matter of making space in the timetable, with no teacher recruitment problems. But have our education masters encouraged this? They have not. Instead, we have successive waves of children teaching themselves, inefficiently, to pick out letters, en route to nationally approved lessons in defunct programming languages (remember BASIC?) or inserting video clips into PowerPoint.

Teach people to type properly and that IT investment might finally pay off in terms of real "skills for the economy". There is hardly a workplace in the land where the Qwerty keyboard doesn't figure large. Fast, accurate typing would lift productivity immediately. Learning how to sit at a keyboard properly - as few children ever do - would do wonders for repetitive strain injury (so, cheers from employers) and for future back injuries (good news for the National Health Service).

Am I serious? About the typing, absolutely. A real key skill that education owes every child of the IT age is the ability to use a keyboard fast and well. Moreover, it needs to be done in school, before self-taught habits take hold. But (like arithmetic) it isn't very sexy. So it may not appeal to the politicians who decide the curriculum.

As for driving lessons - well, if you like free TV licences for pensioners, enjoyed by everyone's granny, including Prince William's, then you'll probably love these. Personally, I'm into redistribution and then letting adults choose what to do with their money: but you can hear the arguments.

Here is a universal benefit (not just for 50 per cent of the cohort), giving poor kids something they've been denied, and one that is economically useful. It will need its own regulator, of course, and there's the slight problem that not every learner will have a car to drive afterwards, but think of the headlines. I think this one may be just a matter of time.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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