UK 'falling behind main industrial competitors'

Ministers criticised for failing to act on proposals to raise standards of education
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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

Britain is continuing to fall behind its industrial competitors because the Government has failed to act to raise standards in education, a national commission made up of eminent educationists said yesterday.

Rising class sizes and teacher redundancies caused by the refusal of ministers to fund the teachers' pay rise this year came in for harsh criticism as the National Commission on Education gave its final report.

The body was set up five years ago by Sir Claus Moser, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, after a proposal for a Royal Commission was rejected. It now says that its major recommendations, made in a report which was published in 1993, had been accepted by almost everyone except the Government.

Until now the commission has striven to be non-political, but its new booklet expresses "dismay" at the lack of progress towards its aims.

The main recommendations were: a move to universal nursery education and reform of the higher education funding system so that students pay back part of their fees. The money saved could be redirected to pay for the education of the youngest children, particularly those from disadvantaged background, it said.

However, of 16 desirable reforms listed by the commissioners, only two had been met to their satisfaction. Particular disappointment was voiced over rises in class sizes; over the fact that nursery education is to be extended to four-year-olds but not to three-year-olds, and over the lack of action over university funding.

The report also lists raising standards of literacy and numeracy, improving teachers' skills, a baccalaureate-style diploma for all over 18-year-olds and a merged government department for education and training as aims which have not been met.

Launching the report, Lord Walton of Detchant, the commission's chairman, said Britain had fallen behind its major industrial competitors in educational terms and was failing to catch up.

While countries such as Germany, France and Japan had as many as 75 per cent of their 17-year-olds in full-time education, Britain still had just 57 per cent, he said.

"We are very disappointed that so many of the proposals we have made have not been taken on board by the Government.

"Their failure to fund centrally the recent teachers' pay award has had a very unfortunate fact in schools, resulting in teacher redundancy in some and in increased class sizes."

The Department for Education said that it had made progress towards many of the commission's aims. Britain now had almost the highest number of graduation rates in Europe and ministers were committed to education for all four year-olds, a statement said.

"Some of the commission's criticisms of the Government are misplaced. We have made significant recent progress in other key areas identified," it said.

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said the Government had failed to learn any lessons from the National Commission's proposals.

"We need a real crusade to improve education in Britain. The commission has offered us many important proposals which could assist in that challenge. It is unfortunate that the government quite simply does not have the vision to meet it."