By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News
With the prime minister under pressure to name, or even bring forward, his departure date, there is growing interest in how his successor would change education policy.
Gordon Brown stepped up his campaign as prime-minister-in-waiting by straying, quite unapologetically, into education policy.
A speech on skills training followed a full interview with myself for the BBC, in which he said, unusually, he was prepared to answer questions on any aspect of education.
One very clear message emerged: a Gordon Brown government will attempt to give the same top priority to education as Mr Blair set out to do way back in 1997.
It was also clear that, even after 10 years in government, Mr Brown believes there is still a lot more to be done to raise standards.
In the interview, conducted in Number 11 after the Chancellor had flown back from giving his skills speech in Scotland, I gave him the opportunity to repeat Mr Blair's memorable, if gimmicky, pledge that his top priorities would be "education, education, education".
Mr Brown was not having any of that - nor could I tempt him to pledge "skills, skills, skills" - but he did insist that education was his "passion" and had to be "the priority for the country".
There was a reforming, almost missionary, zeal about his enthusiasm for education: it would be our "national mission" to be "number one in the world in education".
Rhetoric, while important in setting government priorities, does not, of course, cost anything.
So would the man who makes much of his "prudence" with the nation's purse strings actually back his promise with hard cash?
Just ahead of a major spending review, I did not expect any specific spending promises. But there were some tantalising hints.
On the talk of a major capital spending programme for schools and colleges, he promised: "we will back that up when we make our decisions on education in the next few months".
So, watch this space and we will see if he delivers.
For the longer term there was an even more important promise.
He said: "We've raised the amount of national income that we spend on education substantially over the last 10 years and it will have to rise over the next 10 years as well."
So what is driving Gordon Brown's "passion" for education?
Clearly it is partly the economic argument.
Everyone is now warning the level of skills and graduate output from the colleges and universities of China and India is staggering.
Mr Brown believes "we cannot continue in the modern world with a situation where so many people [in the UK] have got no qualifications because we know they will soon become unemployable".
The Treasury's estimate is that while there are currently about six million unskilled workers in the economy today, by 2020 we will need only half a million.
That is why Mr Brown is talking tough about forcing, if necessary, 16 to 18-year-olds to undertake education or skills training.
'Elephant in the room'
With a "greying" population, and an inevitable decline in the number of school-leavers over the next few years, the economy will need everyone to upgrade their skills.
On this much, all political parties now agree.
It is very noticeable that, under David Cameron, the Conservatives have now dropped their former coolness towards plans to expand the numbers of people going to university.
Shadow education secretary David Willetts told a gathering of university leaders this week that "ambivalence" towards producing more graduates has gone and that he now welcomes expansion.
The big question that now looms over university policy, for all political parties, is this: will the "cap" on variable tuition fees be lifted when they are reviewed in 2009?
When I asked him outright, Mr Brown refused to commit to removing the cap.
He said no more than this: "We've got to look at what's happening in universities as a whole [and] we've got a review that will happen in a year or two from now."
Mr Brown takes a slightly different line on widening participation
That is sitting on the fence. But it was clearly not a definite "no" to higher fees.
In the spirit of balance, I put the same question to Mr Willetts this week. He too said we would have to "wait and see".
On the same occasion, I asked six leaders of various higher education groups the identical question: should the cap be lifted?
Only one - Dr Rodney Eastwood, director of strategy and planning at Imperial College - gave an unequivocal "yes".
The others, including the spokespeople for the three main university groups (The Russell Group, the Coalition of Modern Universities, and the 1994 Group) all refused to be drawn.
It seems the fees cap has become the "elephant in the room" that everyone pretends does not exist as they discuss the future of universities.
Among some universities, there is still some nervousness about what Mr Brown might do to promote his well-known belief in the merits of widening participation in university education to more students from lower-income groups.
Legacy of Empire
Oxford University, in particular, has not quickly forgotten the row Mr Brown stirred up over Laura Spence, the state school pupil who did not win a place despite being predicted, and subsequently achieving, five grade As at A-level.
Today Mr Brown takes a slightly different line on widening participation.
While he still clearly thinks there is further to go, his stress is now more on changing students' and parents' attitudes than on pressurising admissions officers.
He sees this as part of his "mission" and says that "it's essential that I go around the country and try to win parents and teachers and win volunteers" over to the aim of up-grading skills.
He adds that he does "see a change taking place in the country where more and more people from every social background recognise the importance of higher education to themselves and to their children".
Finally, the Chancellor was particularly keen to join in the current debate about the teaching of history and citizenship. He believes that, fundamentally, citizenship should be about teaching children about British history.
"I think people want to know what Britishness is and what makes up Britain."
And by this he includes rather more than just the current suggestions that pupils should learn about the legacy of Empire and the slave trade.
In particular he cited the need to teach about the "freedom from arbitrary rule that came in during the 16th and 17th Century".
"What I am concerned about", he added, "is that we do not undervalue any more the unifying features of being British and being part of Great Britain."
From the Scot who wishes to become the next prime minister of a devolved Britain (with four education systems), interest in Britishness is quite understandable.
It is also quite clear from this interview that, if he does move into Tony Blair's shoes, the education world cannot expect any respite from the rapid rate of change over the past decade or more.
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