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Being Education and Skills Secretary is generally acknowledged as a very tricky temperature of root vegetable to tackle nowadays.

The public services are often seen as the poisoned chalices of political office, as they guarantee the impossible requirement of improvements with cuts. When dealing with the public sector, a minister faces a public longing for a gaffe, mistake or misstep. They also deal with strong unions determined to stand up for the rights of their members, keeping an eagle "“ like eye on issues of fairness and pay, ready to vote for a public and embarrassing strike should they feel the need.

A River Runs Through Them?

They also deal with professional associations on the part of "employers" such as the Association of Colleges (AoC) in Education, sticking to their guns on the employers" stance and the budget requirements. There is even the private sector to consider now, with their ability to involve themselves in public services and irritate almost everyone else involved. Thus the Minister has two options; try to float along on the surface of wherever the strongest current may take them, or to stand on their feet and try to direct the flow of the river.

League tables became the hot topic a little early this year, appearing on peoples" lips before the exam results are even at the presses let alone hot off them. Last year's announcement of a new points based system for the tables, which sees vocational qualifications given more "equivalence" and is expected to result in many of the AoC's member colleges climbing the league tables, came in mid August. This year, the hottest July day in the UK since records began played host to comments from the Education and Skills Secretary Alan Johnson MP on the importance of the occasionally maligned league table.

The Right Thing

Speaking before a committee of his fellow elected officials today, Mr. Johnson commented that tables were "absolutely the right thing". This flies in the face of the beliefs of the education unions, who feel that the league tables lead to an inordinate amount of stress for their members and do not rate the true educational merit and value of the courses on offer. The unrest over league tables would have been greater in previous years; the FE sector has long felt the playing field to be titled in favour of the schools.

Now that this has been smoothed over, perhaps it would be reasonable to expect that schools will now complain of the "unfair" boost being given to vocational qualifications. Whether or not this may prove to be the case, Mr. Johnson's sympathy apparently has its limits. Today he said: "I accept the pressure it puts, and the extra intensity and stress it puts on teachers, but it's absolutely the right thing to do."

From this limited statement it would appear that sympathy is temporary, but policy is permanent. Leaving to one side the fact that this statement follows hard on the heels of the proposed creation of the "A *" grade at "A" Level, which would appear to make any year to year comparison of grades fairly redundant in the short term, it must be asked whether the important question is addressed in his comment, or whether this is another handy statement to be made in the blazing light of a midsummer day.

The pay deal that has just been voted for by University and College Lecturers" Union (UCU) members may have removed the threat of strike action in the near future (always assuming the terms are met), but this should not be taken as a sign that the newly created "super "“ union" has been de-fanged. Should they decide that the welfare and professional security of their members is being endangered by an obsession with league tables, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for trouble to erupt.

Perhaps the question is not whether Mr. Johnson accepts the pressure, intensity and the stress. Perhaps we should be asking whether the lecturers and teachers do?

Jethro Marsh

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