Two views are commonly expressed about English education. One is a counsel of despair that argues that all our ills could be cured if we simply turned back the clock 50 years. The other says that nothing has gone right since schools started to account for themselves to taxpayers and parents. All we need do is scrap tables, targets, testing and inspections.
Both views are mistaken. There has been a quiet revolution under successive governments since 1988. Many schools have seen remarkable improvements that have been a direct result of applying sound leadership, management and organisational techniques, alongside good teaching and learning. But another factor has also played a critical role: the greater accountability that is now required of our schools. We must ensure that nothing undermines this principle of accountability.
National performance tables and testing have opened education to overdue public scrutiny. More important, pupil and school level targets have helped hundreds of struggling schools to improve. Data from the Office for Standards in Education and the Department for Education and Skills make it possible for schools to foster individual improvement with programmes of learning for each pupil. Specialist school status and programmes such as Excellence in Cities have enabled many schools to improve far faster than the national average (casting doubt on the argument that exams have systematically become easier to pass, since improvements have been far from uniform). Ofsted inspections have shed a powerful searchlight on schools and, through their fearless identification of failure, have helped many youngsters to gain a decent education.
It is not popular to paint this picture of progress in our schools.
Teaching unions may say it misses the point: we should instead complain about over-tested children, damaging performance data, intrusive inspectors or disillusioned teachers.
The Government's critics will say it glosses over New Labour's "failure" to reform public services. Some parents, especially in the inner cities where there are still too many underperforming schools, may not yet be able to get their child into a good school. And, though the system is a lot better than before, it is not as good as it can and should be: only 53 per cent of 16-year-olds obtain five good GCSE grades, whereas the CBI believes 80 per cent of jobs will soon require them.
There is still too much needless bureaucracy. More must be done to improve literacy and numeracy in primary and secondary schools, and to engage those let down by the academic focus of the 14-19 curriculum. But we are at a crossroads.
Within three years, virtually all secondary schools will have specialist status or be academies. Significant resources are being invested in rebuilding and new secondary schools. Teachers are better paid and supported than ever. Major changes are likely in 14 to 19 education.
Schools are also being trusted with greater independence than for at least 20 years. ICT is finally showing its potential as a learning tool: it helps pupils to enjoy a more personalised journey through secondary education.
These developments should be welcomed and embraced. But, as they come to fruition, schools must keep their eye on their main purpose: to develop well-educated, rounded and active citizens who can support themselves and their families throughout their lives. And government must ensure that the system remains transparent and open. It must not revert to being a secret garden through the obscurity of new terminology or in a misplaced effort to reduce the "burden of external testing".
Exams can become more inclusive and appropriate without debasing the currency that comes from independent marking. The implementation of Mike Tomlinson's proposals, which recommend that a GCSEstandard diploma should largely be assessed within schools, should not be allowed to weaken such accountability.
Meeting this ambition is difficult where a multiplicity of disadvantages militates against achievement and aspiration. Yet, because so many schools have made it a reality, there can be real hope that what works for the best can spread to the rest. Of course, such schools share common characteristics beyond individualised targets. They involve parents beyond statutory requirements; they use ICT creatively and effectively; they craft their timetables imaginatively; they offer an innovative but purposeful curriculum; and they maintain a very clear set of sanctions for discipline.
But it is accountability and the effective use of data that allow them to set realistic but challenging goals, and to see how well they have been met.
Our new book Excellence in Education shows how others can learn from the success of those that have improved, often in the most challenging of circumstances.
Some say that tests and targets distract from a richer educational offer.
The evidence is to the contrary. Schools that are good at improving exam results are also more likely to offer a good extra-curricular programme.
They often have the strongest community links and the greatest involvement of parents. They are also those that make the biggest difference to the life chances of pupils who would once have been written off. Good schools know the place of targets and accountability. They also know how to provide a rounded education. The two must continue to go together.
Sir Cyril Taylor is chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust. Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the Department for Education and Skills, 1997-2001. Excellence in Education: The Making of Great Schools by Cyril Taylor and Conor Ryan is published today by David Fulton Publishers, pound;25. Tel: 020 8996 3610 to order copies.
Book of the week, Friday, PAGE 18