Our vision is a world class education service; one which matches the best anywhere on the planet. We want to see it achieved, not at some indeterminate date in the future, but as soon as possible within the decade that has just begun. The sense of urgency comes, not just from the belief that every passing day when a child's education is less than optimal is another day lost, but also from the belief that time is running out for public education to prove its worth.
The danger is that as the economies of developed countries grow, more and more people will see private education for their children as a rational lifestyle option. If this were to occur, they would become less and less willing to pay taxes to fund public education, which over time could become, in the devastating phrase of the sociologist Richard Titmuss a generation ago, a poor service for poor people. It is hard to imagine how social cohesion could be achieved and how cascading ever-growing inequality from one generation to another could be prevented under these circumstances.
Only if public education delivers, and is seen to deliver real quality, can this unwelcome prospect be avoided. We believe that successful reform is possible, that public education can meet the needs and aspirations of all students in our diverse, modern societies; and that it need not take forever. That is the vision.
In England we have an opportunity, possibly unique, to achieve that vision. The government has a large majority and real power. Expenditure on education is increasing in real terms year-on-year (over 5 per cent real growth last year, over 8.5 per cent this year and three further years of real growth already promised by the Prime Minister).
Furthermore, a combination of macro-economic policy and changes in the tax and benefits system will mean that, by the end of this fiscal year, over 1.2 million children will have been taken out of poverty since May 1997 with obvious benefits for education itself. If it is not possible to reform education successfully in these favourable circumstances, it is hard to imagine when it would be.
In seeking to achieve this vision the Government is highly conscious of our starting point. In a 1995 study of adult literacy the UK fell behind most European countries, performing similarly to the United States. On maths for 13-year-olds (in the 1995 Third International Maths and Science Study) England fell below the OECD average.
Meanwhile, the proportion leaving school unqualified or with low levels of qualification has been unacceptably high compared to other developed countries.
In the modern world electorates are impatient. Much as they might share the long-term vision of a world-class education service, they will not wait for five to 10 years to see if it is delivered. Hence the central paradox facing education reformers i a democracy - a long-term strategy will only succeed if it delivers short-term results.
In order to move from the evidently underperforming system of the mid-1990s to the world class vision, we have developed a policy approach best described as "high challenge, high support".
The past 25 years of educational history in England can be summarised as follows: 10 years of low challenge and low support until, in the mid-1980s, the Thatcher government turned its formidable attention to the problems of the education service. Their answer? Increase the challenge: new standards, new tests, new school inspection, new publication of school test scores.
Ten years of high challenge, low support followed. The increased challenge was not matched by investment in teachers' pay, smaller classes, improved technology, professional development or better school buildings. Nor was enough done to address the social circumstances which, particularly in declining industrial areas and large cities, made the job of educators daily more difficult. The result: some improvement but also conflict and demoralisation.
During those conflicts many educators waited for the election of a Labour government which, the historical evidence suggested, would reduce the challenge and increase the support.
But the Blair Government did not believe the old approach would deliver either long-term vision or the short-term results. Instead it built on the previous government's reforms, sharpened the challenge and, crucially, added the support (see box).
HIGH CHALLENGE, HIGH SUPPORT The principles of this approach can be summarised as:
All students can achieve:
set high standards and expect every student to meet them;
recognise that for some students, in some circumstances, reaching those high standards is more difficult: give them the extra assistance and time they need.
Don't compromise on quality, invest in it:
expect schools and teachers to do an excellent job: hold them to account for their performance;
reward success, challenge failure;
recognise that if teachers are to perform excellently they need the encouragement, the rewards, the support, the materials, the buildings and, above all, the professional development that makes sustained excellence possible;
recognise that, for some schools and some pupils, the challenge of meeting high standards is more demanding and provide the necessary targeted support.
A government that demands
quality must provide it too:
constantly restate the big picture and strategically manage reform so that the substantial demands of
radical change are seen by principals and teachers as an investment
in a better future rather than a
series of unconnected initiatives which are here today and gone tomorrow;
create a culture in which everyone takes responsibility for student outcomes, including the Secretary of State for Education and in which problems, however intractable, are out in the open being tackled rather than being swept under the carpet;
invest steadily and ensure that all money is for modernisation.