Western leaders, it seems, start with good intentions towards education only to discover that solving its problems takes time. While they wait, they tend to lose interest in education and turn their minds to questions with more immediate solutions such as Waco or motorway cones.
Of course, economic policy cannot but be given priority in spite of its apparent intractability. In any case, it is an area where there is more immediate feedback than in education. There are published monthly indicators of unemployment, inflation and growth. Economic policy may be tough but for a politician that is a small price to pay for always having something to announce. As Margaret Thatcher once said to Kenneth Baker, who clearly took the lesson to heart: "Never underestimate the effectiveness of simply just announcing something."
The question is, what are we to make of Tony Blair who, true to the traditions of Western leaders, announced in his first major speech that he had "a passion for education"?
The early signs are impressive. As leader of the Opposition he has, in David Blunkett, appointed an excellent education spokesperson who has sharpened both policy and presentation. Then three weeks ago Blair made a speech on education which won the plaudits of The TES and many other commentators. It set out precisely the kind of ambitious vision one would hope for from a potential leader and provided firm evidence of his sincerity as well as his passion.
So far, then, so good. But the real test will come if he wins power. With all the pressures of Government crowding in, will the passion survive? How will we know?
Politicians of all parties are rightly keen to put in place performance indicators for the public services. Perhaps we might do the same for them. Then we would be in a position to judge them, as they should be judged, on their record. Hence the following performance indicators for any Prime Minister of any party who claims to be "an Education Prime Minister".
First, surely we would expect a vision; an idea of how that Prime Minister viewed the role of education in creating the society of the future. We would expect that vision to be ambitious, motivational and consistently held. We would expect two or three speeches per year in which education was the predominant focus and regular references to it in other speeches and media appearances. School visits linked to the speeches would be important too.
Second, we would expect the Department for Education and Employment to become a great office of state on a par with the Home Office and the Foreign Office. In the 1930s one education minister described his department, cruelly but not inaccurately, as "an outpost of the Treasury". Mrs Thatcher described it as "awful". Kenneth Baker said that going there from the Department of the Environment was like "moving from the manager's job at Arsenal to Charlton". Personally, I would consider any move away from Arsenal to be a promotion but clearly that was not Baker's view.
This is simply not good enough. The centrality of education to our economy and society is now universally recognised. Any politician, or civil servant for that matter, should come to perceive going there as an honour and a promotion. John Major's decision last week to merge education and employment will help in this respect.
Third, the Prime Minister should appoint good ministers to the DFE and avoid the temptation to involve them in the regular games of musical chairs (John Major did well on this score, too). The average tenure of a Secretary of State for Education is just under two years. As a result many holders of the office have been in post for only one complete budget cycle. No wonder it has been under-resourced. Worse still, it has been very rare for a shadow spokesperson to become the Minister. For example, no Labour education shadow has gone on to become the Minister in a majority Labour government.
Fourth - and from this there can be no escape - an Education Prime Minister would have to invest more in the education service. As a minimum there should be steady growth over the lifetime of a parliament. Reality dictates that the extent of the growth will be limited, but the steadiness alone would be a huge advance on the present.
Fifth, there needs to be a sensible policy process. Politicians are right to be impatient for change. There should be no question of a return to the old corporate-style partnership under which change took forever, if not longer. It is also right sometimes for politicians to take tough decisions in spite of professional opposition. Their job after all is to govern on behalf of the people.
On the other hand, they also need to recognise that they will achieve nothing unless they consult and involve in decision-making all those affected, and refine their policies in the light of both the resulting feedback and the evidence of independent evaluation. We saw in the unhappy reign of John Patten the result of the policy process losing touch with reality. No Education Prime Minister could countenance that happening again.
Finally, an Education Prime Minister should be in for the long haul. The kind of transformation that the education service needs if we are to have a successful democratic society in the next century is certainly a two- parliament task.
Since no party can guarantee to win two consecutive elections, an Education Prime Minister should strive to win support for the education strategy far beyond the confines of any one party's traditional support.
Prospective Prime Ministers might say this is a tall order. May-be; but it seems to me to be the least we should expect from anyone purporting to be an Education Prime Minister. We are, after all, attempting the ambitious task of creating the learning society.