Opinion: The Government really must try harder, says Sir Claus Moser

If we are going to be fair to our children - give them all the opportunity to start out on a lifetime of learning and success - then we must end the rhetoric and start the action
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Has education really become the top priority to which our politicians constantly refer? That is the question uppermost in my mind as the National Commission on Education draws to the end of its work.

Learning to Succeed, published 18 months ago, was our main report. In it we set out a totally new vision for education and training after a thorough review of the whole field - from nursery education to university and beyond. Last week our final report, The Way Ahead, reviewed progress since then.

So have the past four years seen a great leap forward to the sort of Britain that can compare with those countries where education is a driving force for all? Sadly, the answer is no. Of course there have been improvements, but we are dismayed that there are so few. Of the 16 key policy recommendations that the National Commission made in Learning to Succeed, there have been specific Government moves on only four.

The need for universal nursery education has been accepted in principle, although for four-year-olds only, not three- and four-year-olds as we urged.

Modern apprenticeships are being introduced, answering our call to address the vocational training needs of 16- and 17- year-olds, but they have no publicly funded educational element.

The national curriculum framework has been simplified and made workable following the Government-backed review by Sir Ron Dearing.

The introduction of a unified national framework of qualifications is going ahead in Scotland, but a review in England is only just the beginning.

On the other 12 main recommendations, including action to reduce class sizes in primary schools, a drive to raise literacy and numeracy, and radical proposals for a new system of funding for students entering higher education, there has been no significant action.

We have shown that all the best evidence demonstrates that smaller class sizes in the early years of primary school are essential to improving later performance. Yet the Government still seems to doubt this. In that case, why not commission its own research?

This is simply not good enough. On many issues Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, clearly has her heart in the right place, but to borrow a head teacher's phrase, the Government must try harder. The recent Treasury action on teachers' pay was a disgrace.

What we must all remember is that the issue is not about governments, politicians, commissions or arguments in newspaper columns. It is about our children.

If we in this country are going to be fair to our children - give all of them the opportunity to start out on a lifetime of learning and success - we must end the rhetoric and step up the action. We show the way at the end of our report.

This is vital. And it is a message I must commend with all the passion in my heart, as the National Commission approaches its final days, to the present Government and whoever will govern us in the future.

The author was the inspiration behind the establishment of the National Commission on Education.