Our discussions have revolved round three main topics:
1. Education Finance
How is the government going to meet educational expectations which rise faster than national income and at the same time keep the growth of public expenditure below the growth of national income in order to achieve tax cuts? It may be possible to squeeze more outputs out of existing educational resources, or reduce other components of public spending. But we do not believe these will meet the long-term problem of inadequate resourcing relative to what people expect.
The two alternatives are to raise taxes or to inject private money into the educational service. If, as Conservatives who want the State to shrink, not expand, we reject the former, we need to find ways of securing the latter. In fact this process is well under way in higher education where private fee and maintenance income as well as business grants fund an increasing share of university budgets. Can this be carried further in higher as well as further education, or do we have to allow parents to pay ‘top up’ fees for compulsory schooling? If we do decide on this we should not do it defensively, but present it as a major and radical extension of parental and student choice, opportunity and commitment.
2. Education and Training
We need seriously to consider how far policy for further education and training should be unified at the centre (say through creating a new Department of Education and Training), while devolving practical implementation to regional and sub-regional bodies. Local control and co-ordination of programmes is essential if post-school training is to respond flexibly to the demands of the employers. Another suggestion is to award training funds (eg for NVQs) on an incremental rather than on an absolute basis, in order to preserve access to training programmes for unqualified school leavers.
3. Educational Advice Centres
These should be set up, under an independent agency, in each educational district (to be defined) in order to give parents information and advice about schools and schooling as an aid to informed choice. One attractive possibility would be for each centre to sponsor an annual ‘schools fair’, at which all local schools would set up stalls to display their wares and promote their distinctive selling points. Such a service, locally provided, would seem to be a logical corollory of this Government’s commitment to parental choice.