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To go boldly into the future

Peter Smith is stimulated - sometimes frustrated - by Michael Barber's plot for a revolution in education.

The Learning Game: Arguments for an Education Revolution By Michael Barber Gollancz Pounds 12.99.

To suggest that Michael Barber has risen fast and almost without trace is no criticism. He may not bring to his work the heavyweight research record of, say, Peter Mortimore or David Hargreaves. That makes it all the harder to accuse him of life membership of the education establishment.

He may have been schooled in the National Union of Teachers' education department - but whatever policy burdens he had to trundle then, he has long checked into left luggage and thrown away the key.

With a combination of hard work, a shrewd instinct for the key issues, an ability to write accessibly which is rare for an academic, and a marked flair for PR, Barber has emerged as a formidably influential policy thinker.

An imaginative but rigorous liberal, he has a talent for building consensus which almost matches that of Sir Ron Dearing, for whom he displays a justified, though at times almost embarrassing, admiration. (Come to think of it, there can be few as well qualified to assume Dearing's mantle when that empty raincoat is passed on, as soon it must be.) He is certainly a space to be watched.

The Learning Game is therefore worth reading if only because Barber is its author. It needs to be read, however, not just by educational policy chatterati, but by teachers.

Why? First because they might be convinced (if they need to be) that, as Barber argues, we do face a fin de siecle crisis. The crisis is not just a political invention. It is not just about the UK's ability to compete in the world market, although too often that is how it is expressed. The crisis is over what should be the informing values and aspirations of a healthy and just society.

There is a second reason: Barber's appreciation that describing the problems does not constitute the solution, and hence his willingness to balance thinking boldly about the future with a preparedness to listen to those who do not come to the same conclusions.

Having got the eulogy out of the way, The Learning Game is often as frustrating as it is stimulating. Sometimes his analysis strikes me as thin. He is not, for instance, the first (nor will he be the last) to see Callaghan's 1976 Ruskin speech as a defining moment. What he does not fully explore is why, put brutally, it did not define.

The fact is that in all the "great debate" brouhaha, no one spotted two themes which now dominate policy thinking. One was a worrying dislocation between the primary system, then unquestioningly admired, and the secondary phase, where the chickens were roosting rather than being hatched. (Belatedly, only a national curriculum came to be seen as likely to guarantee the badly-needed continuum.) A second was that widespread employer concern about school-leaver standards - not always well articulated - was often arrogantly dismissed as the gripe of those who weren't getting the factory fodder they needed at a time of full employment. And, of course, no one predicted (or perhaps could have predicted) how technology would change the nature of work itself.

But if history is often a gloomily contentious analysis of how things might have been avoided, what of the millennium? Has Barber seen the future, and does it work or, more threateningly, merely lurk?

On some issues he is characteristically astute, though sometimes strangely throwaway.

He is absolutely right, for example, to suggest that a key priority is to create an education system which marries equality and diversity. Achieving a consumer-responsive diversity of learning opportunities and challenges (and Barber is dead right to emphasise the importance of children as consumers) will be a hard trick to pull.

A highly-prescribed national curriculum framework is a clear obstacle to diversity, but providing a range of marginally differentiated institutions moves inevitably towards inequality.

Barber is correct too to point out that the information technology explosion means that schools cannot be the monopoly suppliers of learning even if they tried.

His notion of home-school collaboration through individual learning plans,rather than contracts over behaviour alone, is ground-breakingly important. So is his emphasis on practical measures to inspire, even require, parental support. Moving from a visionary blueprint to reality is more problematic.

Disarmingly, Barber borrows Mark Twain's description of Tom Sawyer "most a true book with some stretches" for his own work. He is right. But there is nothing wrong with being stretched, and that is why this is a good book.Barber probably has it in him to write an even better one. I hope he does.

Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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