Everyone needs a second chance

Learning is for life, not just for schooldays
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The Independent Online
If I had been subjected to selection, I would have failed at 11 and finished school at 14. Fortunately, one teacher inspired me just in time. I want every child in Britain to have what I had. A good teacher, a chance to specialise, the core skills to go on learning and lots and lots of second chances.

We all now seem agreed on one thing: education is going to be central to the next election. Given last week's angry parliamentary exchanges, this may seem something of a mixed blessing. But underneath the bombast and bluster of the party political dogfight, quite a lot of consensus is emerging.

There is wide agreement on the importance of education for Britain's future economic success and social cohesion - and for a liberal society in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

There is acceptance of the crucial role of pre-school education, the idea of life-long learning, the importance of the information revolution.

Dr Christina Townsend, the chief executive of BTEC, the vocational qualifications council, made the point in a recent article that after the battles of the Sixties, there is a broad consensus that basic skills go hand in hand with creativity. And after the battles of the Eighties and early Nineties over structure and control, there is consensus that diversity can go hand in hand with high standards.

Sadly, her hope that this marks the end of ideological conflict in education is likely to prove illusory. But her contention that the debate must now be about practicalities - "how best to deliver what we all agree needs to be delivered" - must surely be correct.

Any programme to raise standards in schools will need three strands. First, better back-up and support for schools after inspections - after all, you don't get fitter just by weighing yourself. Second, more involvement of parents in their children's education, based on new parent-school agreements - which I first advocated eight years ago. And third, higher teaching standards. That doesn't just mean isolating bad teaching. It means giving incentives - such as sabbaticals - to good teachers.

But the biggest challenge is to create a truly effective structure for life-long learning. Education remains a one-chance event for too many in Britain - and quality varies wildly. So to start with we need pre- school education for all children from the age of three. Everyone is agreed on its value. But without the money to make it happen, "valuing pre-school education", like every other good educational intention, is meaningless waffle.

In the classroom, we should be using information technology to help children learn at the pace which suits them. Multi-media integrated learning systems can enthuse the brightest and encourage the weakest - with arguably far more impact than old-fashioned accelerated learning schemes.

In secondary school every pupil should have the chance to map out their own curricular path. We mustn't confuse selection with specialisation. Schools should be encouraged to develop in their own distinctive ways, forging partnerships with other schools, including schools in the private sector, to help individual students to pursue their own chosen paths.

Finally, beyond 14, we should be reshaping the whole curriculum structure, breaking down the divide between "academic" and "vocational", higher and further education; transforming narrow A-levels into a broad-based, modular curriculum like the international baccalaureate; making degrees credit- based; all providing a framework for life-long learning in which everyone is guaranteed a period of education or training at a time of their choice in adult life.

This is a radical agenda. And it will cost money. We propose an extra pounds 2bn - raised, if necessary, with an extra penny on income tax - dedicated solely to funding pre-school education from three, to put right some of the damage done by school cuts, and to boost post-school education and training. I am not talking about a single budget of extra cash but a decade of investment in education.

Deep down, underneath the blood and thunder of the political slanging match, everyone knows that is what needs to be done. Is our confrontational political debate really going to stop it coming to the surface?

There is a duty on everyone concerned with the future of education to seize this opportunity and make sure we make the commitment, changes and investment to give Britain an education system that will guarantee our future in the next century.

The writer is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

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