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Technology isn't enough;The shape of things to come;Millennium edition

The transformation of our school system depends as much on the type of society we choose to live in as on scientific ingenuity, writes Bob Doe.

Optimists, it is said, are those who think the future is uncertain. But it is not necessarily pessimistic to predict that, far from facing a Brave New World of technical wizardry in the next century, schools will be shaped largely by the same old social, political and economic factors affecting them today. As Simon Weil, the French philosopher put it (though presumably he put it in French), "The future is made of the same stuff."

That is not to deny the dramatic technical advances. Or that some of these might impact on the classroom. But it is already theoretically possible to deliver much of what passes for education at home through a TV screen or down a phone line or to place instruction in the hands of a silicon chip rather than a teacher.

Even school science experiments can be reduced to utterly safe, reliable, odourless computer simulations considerably cheaper than building and maintaining a lab. But generally the same classes and lectures go on as before.

It is not even the cost that prevents schools from fully exploiting the latest developments in information technology. Schools have loads of money. They just choose to spend most of it on teachers.

Secondary schools could equip every pupil with a computer within five years by reducing staff by about around 10 per cent - three extra pupils per class of 30. Presumably they don't because they don't believe the gain would offset the pain. Or perhaps they do not think it will play well with parents who, on the whole, favour smaller classes providing more personal attention rather than bigger, automated ones.

Whatever it is that prevents this and other radical changes has more to do with belief than technical feasibility; with the inbuilt conservatism of those who provide and consume education. And in case this starts to sound like a speech by the Prime Minister on the "forces of conservatism" in public services, let us remember that Mr and Mrs Blair chose one of the most ultra-conservative educational establishments in London for their two boys.

Curriculum 2000 was put in place by the same government which gave us the ambitious National Grid for Learning. And yet the revised national curriculum almost completely ignores the existence of the Internet or the megabyte microchip revolution. The curriculum for the 21st century remains rooted in the grammar school of the first half of the 20th, which in turn rests on that of the public schools of the 19th.

A degree of conservatism is necessarily innate to education, which is, after all, the preservation from one generation to the next of what is thought to be true, good or useful. Schooling is about the passing on of the conventions of behaviour and language that make up our culture and knowledge. So by definition, even a value-free modern education would be conventional.

Of course, education is not value-free. Selecting what children should be taught and the learning that is regarded as superior are ways by which we seek to preserve not just our culture but social order and, some would argue, the power of the ruling caste. Which is why the choice of knowledge and skills regarded as important is no longer the preserve of teachers committed to giving pupils an equal start in life or to providing education according to their own philosophy.

In an education system designed to fit certain social and cultural divisions, where and with whom you learn becomes as important as what you learn. That is why more parents now educate their children privately ; why many more say they would if they could; and why schools wishing to attract ambitious, supportive parents find it helps to adopt the symbols of privileged education such as school uniform.

Any changes in the values that underpin society over the next century will not just impinge on the curriculum. They could also affect the structure and funding of schooling. The ending of the rigid class structure is often predicted. But even if this comes about, it does not necessarily mean replacement by a more collective, egalitarian society. New Labour espouses individualism with as much fervour as Mrs Thatcher, even if it accepts the social economic case for a more inclusive meritocracy. But the wider education is spread, the more intense the scramble for individual advantage, unless the competitive basis of society changes.

This emphasis on individual advancement may not necessarily mean systematic reintroduction of grammar schools. But whether by parental choice or selection, the social polarisation of schools is likely to continue all the time our education places a higher priority on personal goals than social ones.

As aspirations grow schools will need to give more attention to the individual desires of their customers if they are to compete in a market in which education is increasingly regarded as a private consumer good.

Low taxation policies will make teachers even more reliant upon top-up funding from parents who are already out there in the market paying for additional tuition, computers, music lessons and other forms of care and enrichment.

Rampant self-interest could even mean the end of free schooling altogether for all but the poorest. It is not just that the price of achieving a basic modern education for all is rapidly becoming prohibitive (especially the "for all" part). As the average age increases, the post-war baby boomers may well become more concerned about their pensions, health and welfare than their grandchildren's education.

Perhaps the best that we uncertain optimists can hope for is that self-interest will take a more enlightened and visionary form.

Bob Doe is deputy editor of The TES

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