The shock of the new

Optional secondary school anyone? Christopher Ball takes a tour of the often radical ideas that will set the agenda in the 21st century

incoln, London, Derby... This is the conference season and I have been out and about. Education conferences are often disappointing, with the same old speakers saying the same old things (myself included). But these three are different. In them, one can begin to discern some distinctive threads of a 21st century debate about education. New ideas are emerging. A few are even rather risky. But I have always enjoyed working at the dangerous edge of things.

The Lincoln conference was convened by the Guidance Council - the umbrella body representing careers educational and youth guidance organisations - to discuss a new vision for guidance and identify a programme of research to underpin it. "Guidance for learning and work" is problematic: what is it? Is it effective? Does it pay? How can lifelong guidance for all be provided? Where is the leadership?

If one of the principles of good guidance is that you help people to help themselves, then the wearyingly familiar litany of demands at the conference that the Government should do something hardly provided a model of self-reliance. But refreshingly I also detected a counter-theme at the conference: determination to make a difference and a commitment to action.

Perhaps, this really will be the DIY learning century. I hope so. I think the Guidance Council may surprise us yet. It might start by challenging the consensus that the Government's target of a 50 per cent participation rate in higher education (it is about 40 per cent) is unwise, undesirable and unreachable. I find this target realistic and inspiring, though I suspect that events will one day make it seem rather modest, like all previous targets for expanding higher education.

Why do commentators and experts deride the Prime Minister's vision of wider access? Do they believe that most people are not bright enough to benefit from university education? Or that employment opportunities will not be available for a better-educated workforce? Or that demand for wider access is lacking? If so, they are wrong three times over. Wait and see.

The second conference in London was organised by the Campaign for Learning to launch its first report from the "learn2learn" project, Teaching pupils how to learn. This is a groundbreaking, "must-read" report. But the title promises too much. We don't yet know enough about how pupils learn to teach them how to do it better with any confidence.

We need a joint inquiry involving teachers and students to answer some fundamental questions. What learning strategies work best? Strategies might involve, for example, making distinctions using metaphors, considering evidence and so on. And what learning styles work best? Is it more effective to be touching, seeing or hearing? Do learners need reflection or action, pragmatism or theory? Why not try them all?

No one at the conference doubted the value of the findings presented. Putting them into practice is not so easy. Teachers need more time and good leadership if they are to bring in model techniques. I was heartened by the evidence of an "unshakeable belief in the potential of all to achieve success". I was also intrigued by an argument that, since successful learning requires choice, we should consider whether secondary education should be compulsory. We shall know we are succeeding when students petition for a longer school day and shorter holidays!

The third conference takes place in Derby from July 5-7. Entitled "The Blossoming Brain,Sowing the Seeds of Learning", it focuses on the first ten years, from age "minus two" (two years before birth) to eight.

Writing the Start Right report for the Royal Society of Arts in 1994 convinced me of the importance of early years. What babies and small children need can be summed up in the acronym NESTLE:nutrition, exercise, stimulation, talk, love, and (a decent) environment. Which do we do best? Nutrition and environment, perhaps. And worst? Perhaps exercise and talk.

Of course, these issues are at the centre of government policy, reflected in the Sure Start programme and National Childcare Strategy. I should be pleased - but I am uneasy about one thing. Research shows the value of good nursery education for three to five year-olds. It is less clear whether one to two-year-olds benefit much. Before the age of one it may be harmful. Babies should be with their mothers. I should like to see more attention paid to helping mothers of small children to be good parents, and less to recruiting them prematurely to the workforce. But in the end it must be their choice. (If you want to know more about the Derby conference, contact SEAL, 020 8365 3869.) So what are the new ideas for a new century? Self-reliance and responsibility, DIY, increasing participation, learning how to learn, reconsidering compulsion, NESTLE... and motherhood. Maybe, after all, the old ideas are best!

Sir Christopher Ball is chairman of the Talent Foundation, patron of the Campaign for Learning and Chancellor of the University of Derby

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you