A friend of mine is a financial adviser. He wears a jewelled brooch in his lapel. Each jewel stands for a certain amount of business secured. Some years ago he showed it to me. "I got an emerald this year," he said. "Sapphire next." I was driving him and his wife to Manchester airport. Their flight to Honolulu was on time and I waved to them as they went to the departure lounge. I went home to mark history books.

But on the journey to the airport my friend tried to get me to join his company. "You'll make loads," he told me. "You've got energy, initiative, enthusiasm."

I replied that I wasn't in the business of grabbing the yankee dollar. I was shaping young minds, giving them optimism, a thirst for knowledge, an understanding of life. He looked at his emerald.

These days my friend owns the company and I am head of the school. I go to see him in his new office in the Liver Building, at the Pier Head in Liverpool. He has a great view of the river and we can see the ferry move in an exaggerated arc to fight the strong tide pushing it out to sea. His brooch is full of emeralds and sapphires.

"They all work their socks off," he says, pointing to his staff through his office window, "and they earn their rewards. Five are getting emeralds this year. Honolulu. Also, we have done more business than any company our size. Weekend in Harrogate for everyone. Still shaping kids' minds?" he asks with a smile.

I returnthe smile and think. "Shaping young children's minds." It almost seems antiquated now. I haven't heard it mentioned for some time. We never say it anymore. We say other things. We talk about what we have to do. We never talk about what we should do.

We are told to focus on raising standards. To achieve level 4 for Year 6 so that they can all bask in the sunshine of success. Yet no one has ever convinced me that achieving level 4 is important for the child. No child gets an emerald for their brooch. They don't get a free holiday. Level 4 does not determine what secondary school they go to, nor even what set they start in. Level 4 is not about the child. Level 4 is about the school. And the focus is not on raising standards of attainment for the child. The focus is on competition. Competition between schools in the form of league tables and competition within schools. Results. Scores. Money. Times have changed.

My friend sits down in his swivel chair. We both look at the river that used to be packed with ships when we were kids. Ships sailing to places we couldn't pronounce, where fruit dropped from trees and blue birds sang and whistled as the sun melted into the sea behind dancing palm trees.

"Me and you," he says, still looking at the Mersey, "we've both come a long way haven't we?" "Yes," I say, "and we've both arrived at the same place."

John Roberts is head of Park View county primary, Knowsley

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