Two reports and a fraught future

January 12, 1996

This year in education we will learn the truth or falsity of the Chinese aphorism that to live in interesting times is a curse rather than a benefit.

Two reports awaited with interest are those from Lord Nolan and Sir Ron Dearing. The former could make 1996 the year of probity and the latter could make it the year of qualification.

The central question which the Nolan Committee faces is how far to go in replacing the creed of entrepreneurialism with the creed of accountability.

Will it be enough to set up an ombudsman who can be a last resort to staff, students or anyone else who might be aggrieved by what they see as bad governance or management - bad to the point, that is to say, of being improper?

Or will structural reform of a deeper sort be necessary, involving the obligation for governing bodies to have staff and student representation? Or deeper still, a provision that elected community representatives must be accommodated on governing bodies?

Along the way Lord Nolan might fascinate us with an answer to whether or not governors (or some of them) should be paid.

While, in general, the majority of those giving evidence to Nolan supported the principle of voluntarism, the issue about payment has become more sophisticated than a to pay or not to pay choice.

For if those on low pay, those with child-care costs and those in occupations in which involvement in community politics means a loss of earnings, are all to be attracted into governance, there may be an argument for paying some if not all governors.

Sir Ron Dearing's report will provide no less fascination. While no one expects Sir Ron to propose the abolition of A levels, the interest lies in how far he will prepare the ground for such a step - perhaps by atrophy rather than decision - at a later date. In the hands of his committee lies the difficult task of creating the basis for parity of esteem between the academic and vocational curriculum for our 16-19 year olds, and of broadening the academic while integrating it with the vocational strand.

And if it was not enough for 1996 to be the year of probity or the year of qualification there are other epithets which will jostle for use. How about the year of the part-timer? Cases which last year started their lives in tribunals are likely in this year to hit the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.

By the year's end, we should know whether the map of employment protection will be changed sufficiently to give all part-timers - irrespective of their weekly hours of work or length of employment - protection against unfair dismissal, redundancy and other calamities that can dog their working life.

And then there is the matter of the budget and the election. Achieving more for less is one thing but the funding in 1996 is likely to require us to make bricks without straw.

The Government will need a radical agenda to win friends in this context. What might be the post-school version of permitting secondary schools to engage in academic selection. The year of the voucher perhaps?

But as this game of horoscopes develops I hear a small voice saying "1996 - ah, the year the roof fell in". Whatever it is: happy new year.

Keith Scribbins is chairman of governors, South Bristol College, and of the Colleges' Employers' Forum.

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