When will they ever learn?: Endless battles over education reforms put our children's future at risk, says Howard Davies

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ONE of President-elect Bill Clinton's more interesting cabinet appointments is Robert Reich as Secretary of Labor. In his book The Work of Nations, Mr Reich has set out a clear view of what America needs to do to compete successfully in 21st-century capitalism, arguing that in the next century 'there will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries . . . all that will remain rigid within national borders are the people who comprise a nation. Each nation's primary assets will be its citizens' skills and insights.'

So, according to Mr Reich, the real economic challenge in the years ahead is to increase the potential value of what a nation's citizens can add to the global economy. That means heavy and effectively targeted investment in education and training, together with enhancement of the transport and communications infrastructure that links those citizens to each other and to world markets.

These are also the CBI's top priorities in its representations on public expenditure, and British businesses are more interested than ever in what is happening in schools and colleges. They are convinced that we must continue to improve the quality of our workforce and the depth of our skill base, within the framework of the national education and training targets agreed in 1991.

With some important reservations, we believe the Government's education reform programme has been on the right track. The national curriculum has largely been a success. Most schools and colleges welcome the control they have been given over their own affairs. Most parents want regular assessments of their children's progress and likely future achievements. The precise form of testing and assessment proposed may not yet be quite right, but the forces of change the Government has unleashed cannot, now, be sent to the back of the class.

What concerns us is that almost five years after the Education Reform Act we continue to hear sounds of battle from the front. Every day comes news of a new skirmish. For many people outside the education system, the constant disputes between local education authorities, teachers, their unions, the Department for Education and Science and the various acronymical creatures of the Secretary of State are baffling, at best.

They create the impression that the educational establishment is more interested in its own internal disputes than it is in the fate of the children in its care, or the relevance of its activities to the prosperity and wellbeing of the nation. We yearn for a less confrontational approach.

Certainly, there are faults on all sides. The Government must shoulder its share of the blame. The reform process has been poorly managed. Even now the structure placed around our school system is imperfect and, in places, incoherent. The Government has been trying, rightly, to harness the disciplines of the marketplace to stimulate performance. But it has been doing so in a crab-like fashion and without the benefit of a proper theoretical framework within which to structure its reforms.

There is no clear 'purchaser' role, for example. The local education authorities, restructured, could have performed that function. In some places, however, they have been left with no obvious function to perform in respect of mainstream education.

Elsewhere the system remains exactly as it was, with a continuing lack of clarity about what the local education authority is striving to achieve. Financial arrangements within the school system remain opaque. Unsophisticated formulae have created problems in schools with older or higher-scale teachers. The transitional arrangements for grant-maintained schools look clumsy. And there is understandable confusion about the different roles of the various educational quangos spawned along the way. The Government needs to work on these and other problems to perfect its social market in education. It could also, with benefit, adopt a less confrontational approach. For the Government to publish examination results in an aggressive way was unwise. The task should have been entrusted to an independent agency. But that does not excuse the hasty and hostile reaction of many in the education establishment. To oppose the publication of results was the height of folly. And threats to boycott tests and assessments are reminiscent of an industrial relations climate that is a dim memory elsewhere in the economy.

For too long, the education system has been a battlefield, on which children get shot. Education reform programmes are under way elsewhere in the developed world, but nowhere else do they seem to generate such unproductive heat. We wish that peace would break out among those in the front line of raising educational standards. We would like to see a more collaborative approach to the development of the reform process.

Business would like to be able to support teachers and educationalists in the public expenditure battles ahead. As the CBI has repeatedly said, education and training are among our highest priorities. Surveys regularly show that the poor quality of our people skills lies at the heart of Britain's economic problems. But our support would be more enthusiastic if we were sure that the best use was being made of the pounds 30bn now spent, and that the top priority of those working within the system was, indeed, to make it work.

The writer is director general of the Confederation of British Industry.