Clarke: only Labour has will for reform

October 1, 2004

We'll overhaul 14-19 education, minister tells party conference. Phil Baty reports

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, injected an element of bravado into his conference speech this week when he held up the Government's battle over top-up fees as proof that Labour is the only party with the stomach for real reform in education.

Addressing party faithful in Brighton on Wednesday morning, Mr Clarke promised a "crusade" and a "revolution" in pre-school childcare and in 14-to-19 education, which, he said, the Government would deliver in its third term.

Mr Clarke said: "We saw their (the Tories' and Lib Dems') opportunism and failure as we legislated to reform student finance.

"Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have the political stomach to make the changes that put the individual student at the heart of our system of education and training."

Mr Clarke said the Government would move ahead with reform to the 14-to-19 agenda in the next parliament. The overhaul of A levels, which Mike Tomlinson will propose in his report due for publication on October 18, has to be addressed, he said.

At a Secondary Heads Association fringe meeting earlier in the week, Mr Clarke warned that the "fundamental change" envisaged by Mr Tomlinson was a tough challenge and would take ten years to implement.

While acknowledging the fundamental nature of the proposed reforms, Mr Clarke said: "There is a consensus for change, but the issues are very difficult and problematic." He admitted that there were areas covered by the report for which "we haven't really done a great deal of preparation".

This contrasted with a more passionate commitment from David Miliband, the Schools Minister, who hailed reform of the 14-to-19 curriculum as an historic goal.

Mr Miliband, who spoke at an Association of Colleges fringe meeting on Monday, said the Government had the best chance in 50 years to reform the 14-to-19 curriculum.

If it seized the opportunity, he said, the Blair administration could go down as one of the "greatest reforming Labour governments in our history".

The Government's priorities include reducing the number of young people who leave full-time education aged 16, stretching the most able A-level students and helping universities and colleges differentiate between the growing number of A-level candidates with top grades.

He said: "We have got a unique chance to make change at 14-to-19. Every section of society has an interest in getting this right. Mr Tomlinson is proceeding on the basis of evidence and building a national consensus for change that has eluded successive generations of reformers."

John Brennan, chief executive of the AoC, welcomed Mr Tomlinson's agenda and urged the Government to implement the proposals. He said: "I hope David Miliband has the courage to take that bold step and equip young people for the needs of the 21st century."

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, announced in his conference address plans to expand employer training schemes to "make a reality of a second-chance education for all".

He said he would extend education maintenance allowances that would end "the injustice of teenagers in our poorest communities forced by family circumstances to leave school early even when they wanted to stay on".

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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