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In search of the best that everyone can get

Never invite more than one teacher to a party," a friend of mine advised recently. "They all end up in a huddle together talking about Sats - whatever they may be." Personally, I find that it is dangerous to let anyone at a party know that you are involved in education. Immediately you are pinned against the wall trying to explain why nobody can write a decent letter or work out your change without a calculator any more.

More sophisticated inquisitors, when they hear I've done international research, ask me which is the best education system in the world. They must feel cheated when I reply, "It depends on what you mean by 'best', and it depends on what you want out of education".

By and large, the countries which do best on international measures have national cultures which strongly value education, and relatively homogeneous populations. One of the speakers at a conference in Geneva I attended last week showed us a particularly interesting graph - a scattergram showing the relationship between income and literacy in different countries. Down in the bottom left-hand corner were the Scandinavian countries, being the most equal in the sample in terms of both income per head and literacy levels. America and the United Kingdom were way up on the right - the most polarised societies on both measures. Such a vast gulf between rich and poor which, unhappily, we have come to accept over the past 20 years, leads to relatively large numbers of deprived children who are hard to educate through conventional means. It also results in conflict over what should be taught. One lobby pushes for a common curriculum, arguing that everyone should have the same learning experiences in order to avoid a "two-tier" system. The other wants more flexibility, pointing out that children have different interests and aspirations, and can be turned off learning if they believe the curriculum is not relevant to their needs. The Green Paper, proposing a vocational route from the age of 14, has provoked just such a division.

Last week's conference looked at these issues from a new angle. We were asked to consider what "competencies" people need for a successful life. The main sponsor, interestingly, was the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - often seen as a number-crunching institution. But here it was behaving like a giant think-tank, starting from first principles in trying to define what counts as a successful life - not just economically, but in terms of personal development, family relationships, contribution to the community, moral values and so on.

Twelve countries - not including the UK - had contributed papers attempting to identify the knowledge and skills which were most valued by their society. Most concluded that some of the most important competencies were not really taught through formal education, but were learned through everyday life in the family, workplace and community. No one seemed to remember the "hidden curriculum" we discussed so earnestly in the 1970s.

It was one of the most thought-provoking experiences I had had for a long time. Although I had intended to bunk off a couple of sessions, hire a bike and ride out along the shore of Lake Geneva, I was so fascinated that I went to working groups all day instead. Sad or what?

But I ask myself, among our welter of tests and targets and instrumental approaches to "success", who in this country is doing this kind of thinking? David Hargreaves, I hope.

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