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The challenge of the 21st century

THE public education systems which became woven into the fabric of 20th century welfare states were the product of the two decisive forces of the 19th century: industrialisation and the nation state. They prepared populations to make the various necessary contributions to industrial society and shaped national identity.

As the 21st century begins, the case for public education needs restating. The new economy and globalisation define a new era.

Without a clear rationale, public education systems could be blown away by these powerful new forces. As the economies of the developed world continue to grow, more and more parents have ever-greater disposable income. Might they not, as a lifestyle choice, decide to spend that income on their most treasured possessions, their children, buying an education tailored to their view of the world? And if they did, how easy then would it be to persuade them to continue to pay taxes to provide for the education of everyone else's children?

In restating the case for public education, we will find we are describing a radically new conception of it.

A good education system is increasingly important not only to the success of a modern economy but also to the creation of a just society. In the 20th century, most educators believed this to be true but few education systems delivered the universal high standards it implied. Because extensive unskilled and semi-skilled work was available, there was employment for those without high standards of education. This is no longer true.

Meanwhile, the distribution of good education also crucially affects the distribution of income. Those societies which in the second half of the 20th century had the most successful education systems - Denmark or Germany for example - tend to have narrower income differentials now.

As the Economist survey of the new economy put it: "Static wage differentials in continental Europe are usually explained by facors such as powerful trade unions and high minimum wages.

"But it is possible that faster expansion in the supply of well-educated workers is more important. This suggests that the real culprit behind rising inequality in America is ... the government's failure to improve education and training."

In the past, this has been true for England too. Both the extent of social inequality and a relative lack of productivity can be attributed in large part to the weakness of the school system in the 20th century.

A central question for us, as we seek to correct the failings of that 20th-century school system, is where we look for evidence on how to proceed. We have plenty of evidence now of what worked then but very little evidence of what will work in the future. The explosion of knowledge about the brain and the nature of learning, combined with the growing power of technology, creates the potential to transform even the most fundamental unit of education: the interaction of the teacher and the learner. Moreover, huge social changes, such as growing diversity and population mobility, present educators with constantly changing characteristics. It is by no means clear that the characteristics which defined the successful education systems of, say, 1975 are those which will define success in the future.

The challenge of reforming public education systems is acute. Those responsible are in no position to deal in certainties. What they can do is manage and transfer knowledge about what works effectively (as our national literacy and numeracy strategies do), intervene in cases of underperformance, create the capacity for change in the system and ensure that it is flexible and adaptable enough to learn constantly and implement effectively.

This is an extract from a paper delivered on November 1 at the Schooling for Tomorrow Conference in Rotterdam staged by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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