Commission urges radical changes in education: Independent report warns that state schools serve minority of ablest pupils but are failing vast majority

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S schools serve a minority of able young people well but for most education and training is patchy, says the National Commission on Education report published yesterday.

The commission sees the reduction of class sizes in primary schools as an important way of addressing the problem: within five years no primary pupil should be in a class of more than 30 and in inner-city areas classes should be no larger than 20.

Last year more than 20 per cent of one-teacher classes in primary schools had more than 30 pupils.

The report, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, says that decrepit buildings are not conducive to learning and urges the Government to spend more on buildings and books. It points out that in 1990/91 the Government spent pounds 57 per pupil on books and equipment in English schools and pounds 79 on repairs and maintenance. In the same year, spending on books and materials in independent senior day schools was pounds 93 per pupil. Prep day schools spent pounds 161 per pupil on repairs and senior days schools pounds 322.

The commission says its reforms could be funded by a 1 per cent rise in basic income tax, a 0.8 per cent rise in VAT or a 0.4 per cent rise in National Insurance contributions. Expansion of nursery education would cost pounds 860m.

Sir Claus Moser, former warden of Wadham College, Oxford, who suggested the commission after the Government turned down his proposal for a royal commission on education, said: 'Education is the one form of national spending which links with everything else, such as the state of the economy. The bill is not outrageous when you view it in the long term.'

Controversially, the report says all students should pay an annual flat-rate charge from the start of their university courses or, if they cannot afford to do so, when they have graduated. The charge would be the same whatever the course cost and might amount to about 20 per cent of the average cost.

The present system of student support is unfair, according to the report, because high income families receive 10 times as much as low income ones in higher education subsidies.

The proposals for funding higher education are much closer to government policy than most of the report's recommendations. Under the present system, students' tuition fees are paid and there is a means-tested grant that has been frozen for three years and that is topped up by a loan. The report says: 'The system is no longer working even for the restricted group at which it is targeted. There is ample evidence of student poverty and growing indebtedness.'

Because of the greater proportion of students from higher social classes at university 'better off groups are benefiting disproportionately from the payment of fees, which are not means-tested'.

The commissioners join a long line of critics of the A-level exam. They say both GCSE and A-level should be replaced by a general education diploma which would be broader than the present exams. Students would collect credits for short courses (modules) and would need to succeed in a range of subjects to pass.

The report suggests that government legislation giving parents more choice is in danger of creating 'sink' schools.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has dismissed two of the report's main findings. Last Friday, after details were leaked, he announced that there was no question of the A-level being replaced; and in a radio interview yesterday he said that the country could not afford universal nursery education.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, accused Mr Patten of refusing to consider any reforms which might cost money. 'Mr Patten is gambling with the country's economic future. His strategy will not work,' he said.

The Daycare Trust said a quarter of British children were in nursery classes mostly part-time, compared with 95 per cent in France.

Dr Kenneth Edwards, chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: 'The commission clearly recognises that we cannot go on as we are. In the future all beneficiaries of higher education must be called upon to contribute to its cost, and we welcome the commission's recognition of this.'

Main points of the report

THE main points of the commission's report are:

Nursery education for 95 per cent of four-year-olds by 2010;

Students to contribute flat-rate sum to course costs;

No child to be in class of more than 30 in five years' time;

New general education diploma to replace GCSE, A-level and all vocational qualifications;

New Department for Education and Training in Whitehall and local education training boards;

90 per cent of young people working for an educational qualification till they are 18 by 2000;

High quality traineeships linked to training allowances;

Right to a day a week off work without loss of pay for under-25s who want get advanced general education diploma.

Learning to Succeed, Paul Hamlyn Foundation National Commission on Education; Heinemann; pounds 4.99.