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Survival tips in a facts boom

Education leaders must decide whether they wish to stick their heads in the sand, or meet the urgent, 21st century need to teach the young to use their judgment and critical skills, says Valerie Bayliss.

IT'S GOOD to see the Government looking over the education reform horizon and focusing on long-term strategy. Tony Blair did it in his Romanes lecture at Oxford in December, and David Blunkett at the North of England Education Conference last month. Both thus countered the long-standing and damaging reluctance of decision-takers in the British education system to look very far ahead.

It has never been more important to do so. The world is changing faster than ever before. The argument about education's role in supporting personal and national prosperity is over; we know we need the most highly educated and skilled population we can get and that we can't afford to leave anyone out.

Blair and Blunkett are also refreshingly open about the importance of education to the nation's social life - an unfashionable belief of late.

But the strategic debate needs the right focus. The difficulties start here.

The current agenda focuses, correctly, on standards and structures - there is no progress unless basic standards rise for all. And don't let anyone tell you that the Government is not very interested in structures, whatever politicians say. They recognise their importance. But is concentrating on standards and structures enough?

No. Neither is sufficient to underpin the long-term strategy the country lacks.

What is needed is a map and compass - an explicit framework for further reform, based on a clear understanding of what schooling might be trying to do in 20 years' time and what it might look like. Blunkett has begun to open this debate: by pointing out how much has not changed in education, and by recognising the need for transformation - in the use of technology, in creating more diversity and in tailoring to individual pupils' needs.

The core strategic issue now is the curriculum - a powerful "driver" of what goes on in schools. Curriculum content tells us what we, as a society, want education to do for our children. Yet, frankly, our approach to it is in a mess. The most powerful rationale for a national curriculum was to sort out the frequently-impoverished patchwork that went before. But 10 years on we still argue more about its weight than its objectives. This is not just a national curriculum problem. The independent schools are cutting content in the Common Entrance exam, because it has got out of hand.

Of course, a clear curriculum entitlement s essential, but the debate about precisely what and how much information the curriculum can carry can only get more sterile. The informationknowledge explosion is already here and will become more, not less, intense. Can the information-driven national curriculum philosophy survive it? There will be no refuge in generalities (or even prescriptions) about transmitting common culture and values. Of course, the importance of doing so is unquestioned. The strategic issue is how we do it (which, incidentally, means understanding, in an increasingly diverse society, what we mean by the common culture) and at the same time working out how to equip young people to survive and succeed in their world. No strategy will deliver unless it engages with this issue. Yet we still hear arguments against a rethink that echo curiously those used at Oxbridge over a century ago to resist new subjects. Rebalancing the curriculum will not be easy. Young people must be helped, as a former chief schools inspector once memorably said, to understand why the world is as it is. Our greater knowledge makes this a more complex task, just as the range of competences needed for life and for work is growing too. But it has to be done. We must re-map the relationship between the business of imparting information and developing the individual.

The issue is unavoidable, it is central to determining what students' entitlement should be. They will not forgive us if we are still, in 2020, turning them out of school unprepared for their world - which is what they think happens now. At its simplest, students who can beat teachers to information through the Internet will take a dim view of a curriculum which prioritises memory skills at the expense of most others. We continue at our peril to neglect the development of competence in thinking and reflection, in evaluation and application of critical judgment; of true self-understanding; of understanding how the world works, of how to contribute to society (and all the other competences illustrated in the RSA's Opening Minds report published last year).

These and others are no mere instrumental toolkit. Nor, despite chief inspector Chris Woodhead's dismissive remarks in this slot last month, can serious, long-term thinking be dismissed as "futuristic rhetoric". These issues go to the heart of what we mean by a good education and must take the lead in the curriculum. We can't build them in by stealth. There is truly a strategic choice to be made and we can't afford to get it wrong.

Valerie Bayliss is director of the Royal Society for Arts' Opening Minds project.

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