Ladies and gentlemen, we have all had a long morning, and I am sure you are dying to get away to lunch. So I will not detain you for long. But it does seem to me that the marketplace of imaginative educational schemes assembled here today highlights a number of important messages.
We are all agreed, I think, on the overriding importance of education and training as a means of securing the future of this country and its young people. And we are all only too well aware of the unfavourable comparisons which have been drawn between our performance and that of our European and other partners.
Education and training is, I believe, an area in which there is much that we can learn from the experience of countries like France and Germany - and it is often a more profitable exercise than seeking to blame them for some of our problems! Of course, precise comparisons are difficult, since each country has its own deep-rooted and distinctive social and educational culture. But we do ourselves no service if we ignore that greater value is attached to technical and vocational training, staying-on rates are higher, and better apprenticeship arrangements prevail in some of our European partner countries. The challenge facing us is, therefore, to take action now to secure the best possible education and training for every young person in this country, so that we will be better able to compete, and to create jobs in the future.
Much is already being done to narrow the gaps between ourselves and our competitors, and - at last - between those whom Lord Callaghan once aptly described as "those who are educated to know and understand and those who are educated to create and do". I do not think I am alone in feeling that it has taken us a long time to get to this point. It is, after all, 140 years - almost to the day - since my great-great-great-grandfather, Prince Albert, wrote to Lord Derby: "I am fully convinced that we cannot afford any longer to be the only country which gives no facilities to its industrial population for the study of Art and Science, and that the government cannot divest itself of its responsibilities in this respect...."; 140 years ago, that was!
On the positive side, it is encouraging that the National Curriculum is already beginning to raise standards; and that the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (the TVEI) does seem to have played an important part in raising awareness of the importance of vocational training. But the move towards jobs which require ever higher qualifications and skill levels is continuing. As society becomes more complex, and the technology more advanced, our standards and aspirations will have to continue to rise. Young people - not just the most able, but everyone - need to aim higher and achieve more; and we must make them want to do so.
The present recession of course is causing pain and difficulty throughout the community, and has affected the highly skilled almost as much as those without qualifications. It has been particularly demoralising I am sure for those who have raised their sights and been successful in Further and Higher Education, only to find that employment opportunities are still depressingly scarce.
The reality, however, is that if we do not continue to attach the highest priority to giving all our young people education and training on a par with the rest of Europe, the situation will simply get worse.
I think it is probably fair to say that, as a nation, we have not always given education the priority it deserves - or, put another way, we have not been as determined as we should have been to develop the potential which exists within each one of us.
In this regard, we all have a role to play in winning over hearts and minds: teachers, trainers, mentors, business people, politicians - and, above all, parents. For if they don't take the training of their children seriously, giving them full backing for their studies and encouraging them to stay on until they get the qualifications of which they are capable, they have no right to ask others to do it on their behalf.
But we need the right package of support measures: attainable but credible qualifications, appropriate courses, good schools, enlightened partnerships between education, business and the wider community, supported by Training and Enterprise Councils and by local and national government.
No single sector of society carries a greater responsibility - or a greater challenge - in this process than the teaching profession. We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to those teachers whose calibre and commitment has already done so much to inspire young people. As if the problems of developing academic and personal potential of their pupils were not enough, we are now asking them to deliver results in an increasingly complex, changing and demanding world in what many are now calling the "new age of qualifications". Across the board whether in implementing the National Curriculum or teaching Vocational Qualifications, teachers have a vital role if the nation is to achieve the new and highly important National Education and Training Targets by the end of the century.
The introduction of the new Vocational Qualifications is, I believe, a welcome indication of the importance of giving due weight to the achievements of everyone undergoing education and training; or, put another way, of giving parity of esteem to all broadly equivalent qualifications, be they academic, vocational, or a combination of the two. Government, schools and colleges have shown the way. We now need employers and Higher Education establishments to put that parity of esteem into practice and to play their part in creating a learning society in which everyone sees the value of education, training and individual development.
Already, as we have seen here today, much has been achieved under the broad heading of Partnership between those with an interest in, and commitment to, raising aspirations and levels of achievement in education. The Compact scheme deserves particular mention, I think. So far, 62 successful urban Compacts have been established. In the process, over 700 inner city schools have shown how agreeing on specific objectives with their pupils, with the explicit endorsement of future employers, leads to significant improvements in attendance, behaviour, work experience and academic qualifications. And I have had living proof of that here today.
Compacts and the more intensive Compact Plus schemes are a remarkable testament to what can be achieved when parents, business and employee volunteers roll up their sleeves and bring their contribution to the educational process. And I would like to emphasise the remarkable degree of support which the Compact schemes have received from the corporate sector: over 70 secondees from leading companies as well as contributions in cash and kind. Without that kind of support, none of this would have been possible - so we do owe those companies a considerable deal of gratitude.
Other schemes based on the same concept of partnership are also proving valuable - such as Mentoring and Tutoring for young people at risk in disadvantaged communities. Study Support Centres, which my Trust has been helping to promote, make it possible for young people to study out of hours when the facilities do not exist at home, or when they need access to a teacher, on hand and ready to help.
Encouragingly, the partnership approach which we are celebrating today also takes account of the simple truth - which it is all too easy to forget at times of recession and unemployment - that education is not just for work, but for life. It is a process which also has to prepare young people for the assumption of responsibility of one kind or another, for an active approach to citizenship, and for an understanding of the spiritual and moral dimensions of life - values which are all too easily submerged in the endless search for short-term profitability or buried beneath the more debilitating aspects of consumerism.
Dealing adequately with these needs means placing proper emphasis on an appreciation of history, literature, art and drama - all parts of our extraordinarily rich cultural heritage. I have found it most encouraging today, for instance, to see this morning that the English Shakespeare Company, supported by IBM and the Teacher Placement Service, is working with pupils from a very young age to develop an understanding of Shakespeare's theatre. There was some terrific Macbeth going on at the back earlier this morning.
I hope that those of you here today who are seeing for the first time the full range of education-business partnership activity will be convinced of its value. I believe that, as they take forward their work on the National Education and Training Targets, teachers and TECs have a crucial role to play in helping young people to aim high. I am asking Business in the Community's Leadership Team - most ably led by Mike Heron here - to add their weight to the process of spreading the word and helping to give more young people the opportunity to develop their full potential.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking of creating a new culture of education and achievement, in which everyone has a part to play. If we fail to mobilise the resources of the whole community in this cause, the prospect is one of more and more young people joining the sad ranks of the under-educated, untrained and virtually unemployable. There are few battles I would suggest which it is more important that we fight - and win ultimately.