Leading Article: Elitism fails the test of modern education

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BRITAIN is plagued by the remains of elitism in an education system that fails to meet the needs of a modern economy. It wastes more talent than its European competitors by excluding young people at each step in their development. Inadequate nursery provision, a huge drop-out rate at 16, poor vocational training and much-reduced but continued rationing of higher education all damage young people's prospects.

This picture emerges from a comparison published yesterday of education systems in OECD countries. Germany, France, Japan and the United States all score better in keeping young people within education. The price of Britain's waste might not have been felt in the past when many jobs were unskilled. But sophisticated economies need highly trained workforces to deliver high wages and low unemployment.

The Government has achieved considerable success in tackling these problems. More needs to be done. The number of higher education places has risen spectacularly, but insufficiently to catch up with other countries. Some eligible applicants are still turned away. Vocational qualifications have improved a great deal, but 16-year-olds still enter the job market without skills, a phenomenon almost unique to Britain within western Europe.

The best way to prevent this human waste is to spend more money. The Government cannot afford to pay and stands back from adopting Europe's answer, which is to find the cash in the private sector. Its middle-class supporters would be unwilling to accept the consequences: more student loans and payment for higher education tuition. Nor have ministers successfully identified ways of persuading enough employers to invest in training, an area in which Germany excels.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, has acted sensibly by making students pay more of their costs. But his efforts have not been radical enough. He has learnt from the experience of Keith Joseph, his predecessor, who was forced by middle-class outrage to withdraw plans to make students contribute to tuition fees.

Mr Patten has settled for a quieter and perhaps longer ministerial life than he might otherwise have enjoyed. But unless he genuinely reforms the exclusive nature of Britain's educational system, he risks handicapping not only the economy but also many members of the young generation.