LEADING ARTICLE: Major misses the education point

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The Independent Online
The education debate is stuck in a rut. Yesterday, there was predictable but unproductive hand-wringing over GCSE results, just as there was last week over the A-level pass rates. In each instance, the same figures were seized upon by some to highlight falling standards and by others to suggest that children are doing well. The truth is more mundane. As Professor Alan Smithers of Manchester University explains on the opposite page, real improvements are probably taking place, albeit too slowly. In short, a lot of hot air is being vented over exam results.

Coincidentally, John Major yesterday made us privy to his innermost thoughts on education in an interview with the Times. Here again, the standard of discussion was disappointing, focusing primarily on changes to the educational bureaucracy that the Prime Minister holds dear to his heart.

Mr Major said that he wants to offer all state schools the opportunity to opt out of council control. This is understandable and, as a policy, has considerable merit. But given that most schools have already decided against following this course, this strategy is yesterday's radicalism. The Prime Minister's remarks on closing down poor schools, expanding popular ones, improving discipline and making reports simpler were worthy and welcome. They will steadily improve education. But they will not revolutionise it in the way that is needed to sustain a modern economy. In short, there was, in his comments, no grand vision.

The Prime Minister all but missed the issue that should dwarf all the others in the current debate, namely poor access to education. All the evidence suggests that to be successful the economies of the future will need flexible education systems that can draw people in at every stage of their lives to retrain and upgrade their skills. That will require expansion on an historic and massive scale. On this question, Mr Major had little to say.

At the moment, many young children are missing out on vital nursery education. The Government's own pilot project envisages no more than a scheme that would fund part-time nursery schooling for four-year-olds and provide nothing for three-year-olds. And anyone over the age of 21 knows the continuing difficulty of getting back into formal education. Work, family commitments, the social security system and institutions of higher education all seem to conspire against those who think that learning should not end with an undergraduate degree.

Taxpayers cannot afford the required expansion of education. Who will pay for it? The Government, and indeed the opposition parties, have produced few answers. Instead, budget constraints have been allowed to damage education. Teachers have been sacked this year to keep council spending within limits. Likewise, financial pressures have forced ministers to freeze access to university admission, so that no more than a third of an age group can gain entry each year.

Yet such rationing is no longer a sensible option. John Major and his opponents must tell us how, using private and public funding, they will engineer the huge increase in education upon which Britain's future success now depends. This should be the central focus of the modern debate.