A piggy bank for knowledge

A-levels force young people into making choices that are too narrow and academic We need to get away from education that is concentrated on a few to involving the many We need bespoke education throughout life - and a personal account to fund it, argues Geoffrey Holland
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The Independent Online
Is education in this country changing at the same rate as the rest of the world? This may seem a strange question. After all, since 1980 a huge amount of change has taken place.

National education and training targets have been established. The staying-on rate at age 16 has climbed from 30 per cent to almost 75 per cent, and the proportion of young people going on to higher education has risen from 10 per cent to 30 per cent. ANational Curriculum has been introduced and a comprehensive National Vocational Qualification system designed. And Britain has become a world leader in new education technologies.

But, given the changes transforming the world around us, we need to do better still before we reach the millennium. We are part of a global market in which education and skills are the currency; there is much more ruthless competition, which cares nothing for history; and the new technologies mean employers can locate anywhere in the world, turning round work, if need be, in a matter of minutes.

In response to such change, we have seen a drive in organisations to improve efficiency, reduce costs and take out layers of supervision. Everyone is trying to deliver products and services tailor-made to the individual customer. Everywhere there is pressure for innovation.

The consequences for people are clear: there is a premium on "core skills" such as communication, problem solving, literacy and numeracy; the demand is for highly qualified, multi-skilled people; individuals have to carry increasing responsibilities; a lifetime career with one employer is a thing of the past; and in every organisation people are needed who welcome change and are not overwhelmed by it.

In short, society needs learners. That learning has to continue through life. The message is that we must get qualified and stay qualified.

It is all some way from what education currently provides. At every level our expectations are too low. Student aspirations are too low. Teachers and tutors do not expect enough of students. Employers do not expect enough of their employees. The potential of our people is far higher than anything we have yet realised. We must begin at the primary level. The Chief Inspector of Schools reports that the standard of primary teaching is too low in one-third of lessons. One in five children aged seven in England fails elementary reading and writing tests. Yet, as our best primary schools show, even in the most disadvantaged inner-city areas it is possible to raise expectations, to give children something to aim for, to ensure they achieve and to convince them that learning can be rewarding.

At secondary level, young people need to be given more responsibility, to be actively involved in the learning process and in running our schools. The crowded National Curriculum focuses on content and the detail of what has to be learned, at a time when the half-life of knowledge is getting shorter and shorter. What are as important are the links between subjects and the process of working together, of making, doing, planning.

Then there is the A-level which is narrow and academic. It forces young people into choices they should not have to make so soon. The A-level is not a gold standard but a rock on which the hopes and enthusiasms of two-thirds of our young people founder. Fortunately, within a couple of years, more young people will be pursing General National Vocational Qualifications than are taking A-level.

The way forward is to design a new qualification at age 18. If we did that, and folded into it A-levels and General National Vocational Qualifications, we should at last have defeated the divide between the academic and the vocational which has so weakened our country. The sooner that divide goes, the better.

After age 18, we must sort out what is now a terrible mess. The worst aspect is financial support, or lack of it. If a young person gets a place at university, she or he automatically gets an award to cover tuition fees, is eligible for a maintenance grant and has access to the Student Loans Scheme. But part-time students get no such funding, and further education students are at the mercy of local authority discretionary awards. Meanwhile, youth training and "modern apprenticeship" beckon, with training credits and the assurance of a weekly allowance. We need to get as close as we can to one financial regime for all.

The providers of education and training for our 18- to 21-year-olds are not doing as well as they might. A joint study by the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's Inspectorate found that between 30 and 40 per cent of students starting a course post-16 were failing. Many did not even complete the course. Failure rates of that order would soon bankrupt a private- sector business.

As for Youth Training, its reputation with young people is low. Too few secure the qualification held out as an incentive when they join. There are some welcome innovations, however, such as the employee development programmes of Ford, Rover and Unipart, which are raising the performance of their employees. Some of the most exciting educational changes in the next years may be expected in industry and commerce.

The great majority of employers, though, are small or medium-sized, and wary of investing in employees who may then simply leave for a job elsewhere. In any case, personal development over a lifetime is something which requires a commitment by the individual as well as the employer.

We should introduce individual training accounts. Every employee would have the right to ask her or his employer to open an individual account. Both employer and employee would contribute. The fund would accrue tax- free. It would follow the individual, who would be the only one able to authorise expenditure from it, to be used solely for education or training leading to a recognised qualification. Such an approach confers an entitlement, leaves the initiative to the individual, and ensures the commitment of both individual and employer. If we can have portable pensions, why not this?

These developments are urgently needed. Time is not on our side socially or economically. We need to get away from education concentrated on the few to involving the many; to focus not so much on teaching as on learning; to treat the learner as a customer, entitled to bespoke products and services to meet individual needs; to get away from education as a once-for-all stage in our early years to a lifelong activity.

Some will say we cannot afford this kind of change. The alternative will be much more costly for all of us. We have achieved a remarkable amount in the past decade. We need now to set ourselves objectives for the turn of the century and beyond.

`The Knowledge' will be broadcast on BBC2 at 7.30pm tomorrow.

Sir Geoffrey Holland is vice chancellor of Exeter University, and was permanent secretary at the Department for Education and former head of the Manpower Services Commission.