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Alan Smithers: A new year of non-stop government initiatives

Another year, another education bill: this one compelling young people to remain in education or training until they turn 18. To pave the way, 17 diplomas for 14- to 18-year-olds are being introduced, the first five from September. Changes to curricula, qualifications, inspections and buildings are also due come into effect. Waiting in the wings is a 10-year children's concoction – not a plan – aimed at turning schools into centres for social services.

The ever-extending list calls to mind Winston Churchill's apology for writing a long letter: "I didn't have time to write a short one." Successive governments seem so driven by a need to make changes, that they do not leave themselves time to think them through.

We can see this in the concern over the narrowing of the curriculum. What do you expect if you judge schools on pupils' performance to the point of closing some of them? What you measure is what you get. Or why bang on about social mobility? If you come up with a secondary education system where entry to schools is largely controlled by social background, why be surprised if kids turn out to have similar prospects to their parents? And if you set schools in competition, is it any wonder that they are reluctant to co-operate?

The ostensible reason for insisting that young people stay on in education or training is that fewer do so voluntarily in England than in most other developed countries. But what seems to have been overlooked is that the total of 17-year-olds failing to take advantage of current provision is not very different from the 67,500 bunking off from the final year of compulsory education, when persistent absenteeism more than trebles to 12 per cent. If none of the so-called truancy-busting schemes has been effective in enforcing schooling to date, why does the government think that putting up the leaving age to 18 is going to succeed? More likely, it will further alienate and even criminalise. Surely, with a bit more thought, the government would have seen that the key to participation is creating opportunities so attractive that young people will want to take them.

A lot is riding on the new diplomas, but their purpose is confused. Our education system has lacked good ladders from school to work. Employers are crying out for skilled and motivated young people to fill a wide range of roles. Young people will flock to qualifications that give them a chance to better their lives. The missing link are qualifications devised by employers that they will recruit on and pay more for having.

But the 14-18 diplomas have got caught up in the desire to expand higher education, irrespective of what goes on there. There is pent-up demand for engineering technicians that could be met through the new diploma, but extra maths courses are being grafted on to make it suitable for university entrance, leaving the technician training as an inferior award. Similarly, why a science diploma? We already have university entry qualifications that are fit for purpose, since A-levels derive directly from university entrance exams. So is it to be explicitly a ladder for the science technicians desperately needed by the pharmaceutical industry among others, or will its purpose again be fudged?

Some of the education reforms have been necessary and insightful. It is generally agreed that financial delegation to schools was a masterstroke. The numeracy and literacy strategies have done much to increase the proportion of children leaving primary schools able to handle words and numbers properly. And improved salaries and training incentives are bringing more people into teaching.

But other changes have been counter-productive, seemingly the frenetic meddling of bureaucrats and consultants anxious to prove their worth. England appears to be almost embarrassed by the success of its independent schools, and attempts are made to explain this away as money, selection or parents. But a major factor has been the schools' relative freedom from government interference. They have been able to get on with providing a rounded education without constantly being hounded by initiatives.

How nice it would be to begin a year commenting on a government that had said it was going to take time out from permanent revolution to reflect on how best to organise education to enhance people's lives. But I doubt if any will have the courage. Just as we tend to fill our time with everyday tasks so as not to dwell on what life is actually for, so governments tend to busy themselves with policies to avoid having to think too deeply about ultimate purposes. With the Blair backlog and a new government, 2008 will be even more hectic than usual. A happy New Reforming Year everyone!

The writer is professor and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham