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No more Marx. Future success is in your imagination;Opinion

The present Government's commitment to creating a world class education service has surely now become clear to everyone. But in the constant attempts to bring change, however much they might be linked strategically to the creation of a world class system, there must be people - I include myself - who pause to ask "why are we doing all this?" Or put the other way round, why can't we comfortably chug along well below world class, but happy with our increasingly marginal lot - the Port Vale of the international community, excited by the occasional Cup run but never likely to ripple the waters?

I want to make two arguments for what we are doing: The economic argument for education reform is the one most commonly advanced by politicians of all parties in all the major democracies. Before he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair had asserted that "education is the best economic policy we have" - words that he has sustained with action since taking office.

The broad argument is clear. Most of us were brought up on Adam Smith or Karl Marx, if we were brought up on economics at all. We were taught that there was a holy trinity of land, labour and capital. Economics was the question of how the best mix between them was achieved, while politics was in effect the question of who owned what. I have news for you. You can all throw away that dog-eared copy of Das Kapital. You might admit - as I did - that you never read it anyway.

For land, labour and capital are no longer the issues. "Microsoft's only factory asset," argued one business magazine, "is the human imagination." In the coming information society the imagination will be king. The success of any economy will depend on the levels of education of its workforce and on the capacity of people to exercise their ingenuity collectively and individually. And everyone will have to keep on learning just to keep up.

The changing pattern of work in this country and other advanced economies over the past 50 years is certainly apparent. Now, about 70 per cent of jobs involve cerebral skills and under 30 per cent manual skills. Fifty years ago the reverse was true.

Furthermore, levels of education in the local population are a key factor in influencing decisions about company location. Multinationals can choose from a range of sites across the globe. QVC, a big American bank, set up in Cheshire precisely because of the skills base there. Abbey National Chairman, Lord Tugendhat said recently that a new service had been set up in Northern Ireland because the supply of graduates - which is much greater than in England - makes it a "natural place" to locate.

The evidence suggests, therefore, that the politicians are right. High standards of education will not guarantee a successful economy but they are a precondition of it. Similarly, while being well-educated will not guarantee anyone a lifetime of work, not being educated will guarantee a lifetime without it. Any successful society in the future will require citizens with the skills, confidence and habits of mind to play an active part in the rapidly changing economy of the future: anyone without those characteristics will have been denied full citizenship.

The second argument - social cohesion - flows from the economic argument. Britain has become an increasingly unequal society in the past 20 years and there is a danger this trend could be exacerbated by the knowledge revolution.

The well-educated, confident adult will in future be communicating through what were, until very recently, an unimaginable range of means and will be network and information-rich. Those who are not well-educated, who lack access to communication and lack confidence will become information-poor. They will find life increasingly difficult as the pace of change quickens and societies become less able to fund the welfare systems characteristic of the late 20th century.

The association between education and an individual's lifetime earnings is increasingly visible. Figures from the General Household Survey for 1995 show that the median annual earnings for graduates in full-time employment exceed those of the unqualified by nearly pound;11,000. University-educated people in their thirties and early forties are up to five times less likely to be unemployed than the average person in that age-range. This advantage exists across the countries in the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation.

Similarly, the evidence of a link between social exclusion and poor education standards is clear. Two-thirds of school-age offenders sentenced in court had either been excluded from school or playing truant. Approximately three-quarters of all excludees have reading ages between 8.5 and 10, while reading materials in secondary school assume a reading age of 14.5. More than a third of house break-ins, car thefts and muggings in London are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds, often during school time.

In Britain's severely deprived estates, a quarter of pupils achieve no GCSEs at all, compared to under 8 per cent nationally. Or put another way: 20 per cent of all those pupils who achieved no GCSE passes in 1994 were in just 203 secondary schools of which 118 were located within 2 miles of large, public sector housing estates.

In short, there is a danger that the information society could reinforce the deep inequalities that already exist and widen the already unacceptable divisions in our society - with dire consequences for individuals and the economy.

We can, if we choose, open up opportunity through lifelong learning, challenge poverty through creating social capital, ensure much greater success for many more pupils through improving schools. It is in this context that the Government's plans for lifelong learning, which were published recently, and its welfare-to-work programme which is currently being piloted, as well as its school improvement strategy, are so important. They unlock what William Blake called "those mind-forged manacles".

Professor Michael Barber is head of the Department for Employment and Education's standards and effectiveness unit.

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