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In a speech to the Local Government Association (LGA) Conference, Secretary of State for Education and Skills Ruth Kelly MP spoke of the path trodden in the battle to improve skills and education, and of the changes and challenges facing the sector in the years to come.

In a climate when business and enterprise occupy so many of the headlines, banners and column inches, Ruth Kelly also recognised the other tasks of education in this increasingly interconnected and yet fragmented nation. Education, even in the hyper "“ technological and competitive 21st Century, is a tool for inclusion and equality, and not simply a "long ball" route into employment.

A Nation Without Barriers

The venue for the speech was appropriate for this message. Speaking in a hall named for Ernest Bevin, viewed as a pioneer in social legislation, Ruth Kelly spoke of the "vision" that the post "“ war (World War II) government had shared for the future of Britain. She described this vision as one where "background would be no barrier to success and every individual had the chance to fulfil their potential, play their part in society and contribute to a flourishing economy." And as she stressed, these are enduring values that today's administration professes to share.

And education in all its guises is a fundamental part of this vision. It is true, of course, that one of the reasons for this is economic "“ as Minister Kelly puts it (with a degree of grandiloquence), we do live in a global economy, and as such "education and skills are the key - to individual advancement and fulfilment, and to the success of our nation, our great cities and our communities." But in a refreshing emphasis on the non "“ Machiavellian, she stressed as well that "Education and skills are the engine of equity in our society."

Instead of looking for a miracle panacea for all inequality, Ruth Kelly is looking rather towards a coherent and cooperative approach to promote a greater closeness and sense of community, of personal success and development. "The challenge," she told the audience, "is simple; to ensure that everyone "“ regardless of background "“ has access to the learning opportunities they need to make the most of their potential."

Inclusion and Cooperation

Turning to the issue of education in communities, she urged everyone to recognise the necessity of moving forwards with inclusive education in co "“ operation. "People live work and are educated in communities," she said. "Schools, colleges, children's centres are not islands unto themselves. They feed on, and contribute to the communities they serve." Warming to her theme, she pointed out that too often the debate surrounding education became one of who exercised power over citizens, rather than how to best "empower them".

The Government recognises its role in ensuring the quality of the provision offered, and it distresses Ruth Kelly to see any shortfall in education. "Why should anyone put up with poor teaching, fragmented and inefficient local services and a lack of opportunity?" she asked, before answering her own question: "They shouldn"t and they won"t."

Speaking on the same subject of quality, she assured those assembled that she recognised the role central government has to play. "National government has a legitimate role in defining those standards, ensuring that best practice flows through the system and that unacceptable standards are rapidly tackled," she said. With inclusion and participation in society falling "“ for example in the generally falling participation levels in democratic processes "“ this message was a welcome reinforcement of the governmental commitment to doing more than paying lip service to social inclusion, and launching more "citizenship drives".

Jethro Marsh

Speak out on Ruth Kelly and the public service debate in the FE Blog

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