Leading article: The Bill is just the start for Johnson

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The Independent Online

While much of Alan Johnson's time as the new Education Secretary will be taken up with trying to steer Tony Blair's education legislation through the House, there are other pressing priorities he must address.

First, we would advise he change his predecessor's stance on boycotting unions not party to the "social partnership" agreement on the new teachers' contract. By all means refuse to make concessions until they rejoin the agreement; that is his prerogative. However, insisting that all civil servants boycott their conferences, so he has no indication as to what they are thinking, brings the words "nose", "spite" and "face" to mind. As the two unions concerned - the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Union of Teachers - are the main organisations operating in primary schools, it means he is restricting his insight into that sector.

Second, we would urge him to have another look at the inquiry by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, into 14 to 19 education. It is becoming increasingly clear that the idea of specialist but separate vocational diplomas is no way to end the snobbery that has seen the downgrading of vocational education for far too long. Sir Mike recommended the replacement of the GCSE and A-level system by an overarching diploma covering both academic and vocational qualifications. Johnson may have to bide his time on this one, though, as we suspect a Gordon Brown-led government may be more sympathetic to this than one led by Blair. (NB He should remember that replacing the current system does not mean "scrapping"; GCSEs and A-levels could be subsumed into the diploma in the Tomlinson model.)

Third, Johnson should stand firm on post-qualification application (allowing youngsters to apply to university after they receive their A-level results), despite opposition from some vice-chancellors. Try explaining the present system, whereby you get allocated a provisional place pending your results, to anyone outside the cloisters of academe, and you will understand why the change is so important.

That said, let us end by stating that we join the education world in welcoming Alan Johnson's appointment following a successful stint two years ago as minister for higher education.

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