Birmingham's children are being urged to reach for the stars, says Tim Brighouse, who has high hopes of the turn of the century.
It is a typically cheerful, generous and optimistic primary teacher who first alerts me to its potency. In a matter-of-fact way she justifies her Millennium approach to the curriculum and her classroom display by reminding me that even William the Conqueror was born too late to experience the last one.
During my visit Mrs Jones tells Class 5 that they are not merely good but the best Class 5 she has ever taught. After confessing that I too had heard they are one of the best Class 5s in the whole of Birmingham, I go on to declare that they look very "chiliastic". We hunt the meaning which, as all Birmingham's schoolchildren now know, is "of the Millennium".
They are the generation which will lay the foundation of the city's affairs for the next thousand years. With enough self-belief and a nation's backing, their private hopes can be fulfilled for their own pleasure and the common wealth. Indeed, because Birmingham is an international city we are asking them to see their future beyond the local, the national and the European economy. They are encouraged to know that they will be citizens of the world.
So recently we have systematised the Millennium factor. Apart from our many good teachers conferring a special "halo" effect on their pupils, we have collected their schools' targets for the current Years 1 and 2 who will take their key stage 2 national tests in 2000 and 2001; and for Year 9 who take their GCSEs in 1998 but come of age in the year 2000 and for Year 8 who do so one year later. And what of Year 7 who take GCSEs in 2000 and next year's secondary September intake?
Having established the targets we shall share the information in the autumn with all the city's local communities and with our own ethnic and religious leaders to compare present performance with future ambition to see if we might make common cause to secure even higher gains in educational performance.
Birmingham secondary schools have just set targets for a 30 per cent improvement in the percentage of pupils obtaining five or more higher grades in GCSE and a halving of those leaving with nothing. The primary schools' self-set targets are likely to be in a similar range of percentage improvement for literacy and numeracy standards for 11-year-olds.
If this were replicated nationally, why not formalise a new period of payment by results?
In return for such significant improvement in educational standards let whatever government is elected strike a chiliastic bargain with our schools. First, let there be stability of school funding through the five years from 1998 to 2003. Then, if targets are being achieved, let there be a 5 per cent dividend for the education service. Half could be invested in birth-to-five improvements in services and half would go to the schools themselves for in-service training for those committed teachers with 10 years' service.
In the same spirit of building a new and better age, there are other pressing reforms. We need to affect the home and community curriculum which occupies 85 per cent of a youngster's time, which thereby far outweighs the 15 per cent spent on the national and school curriculum. In the Millennium bargain the local education authority would be charged with spending 1.5 per cent of its budget on transforming the home and community curriculum.
In Birmingham we would argue strongly for spending much of that on the University of the First Age in order to create a staff and curriculum development project which would, through its excellence, affect what goes on in the mainstream. To avoid the education authority becoming the monopolistic provider half of that 1.5 per cent should be provided by the voluntary sector, probably in association with local universities, businesses and community groups so there is a wholehearted push for higher standards from all the community.
A third Millennium reform would be to establish a standard for school improvement. In Birmingham we are consulting on such a "Success for Everyone" standard. As the title implies the standard encourages schools to aspire to the elusive goal of enabling everyone to be successful. A school committing itself to the "standard" would do so only if 80 per cent of the staff and a majority of parents and governors were in favour. They would be committing themselves to attempting to live up to certain principles - of inclusion, of acting on the basis of their pupils having many different intelligences, of espousing lifelong learning and of seeing competition as mainly against one's own previous best.
Participating schools would adopt a shared language and map of processes to learn from each other and research. The scheme will set out basic, intermediate and advanced standards in the arts, science, literacy, IT, community development, health provision, numeracy and, most importantly, equal opportunity, so that when the inspectors visit, schools could be accredited and their progress endorsed.
The debate on this has started in Birmingham but it should be taken over and developed by the local education authorities, the national parents' and governors' associations and the teachers in order to put down a national marker for a change of mood with the emphasis on success.
We need more than these three reforms, however, if we are to make the best of the Millennium. If a change of mood is to be successfully accomplished we need to eliminate some institutional practices which undermine our collective attempt to throw off the shackles of failure. These institutional practices are like computer-based viruses for which urgent antidotes are now needed.
For example, the value of the age-weighted pupil unit within the LMS formula should be valued five times greater for at least 5 per cent of the school's pupils so that any subsequent exclusion is a reminder of the needs of children with disabilities. Admission criteria in any major urban area for secondary education should stipulate the right of parents to a place for their child at the school closest to their homes and schools should be rewarded for achieving that through the LMS formula.
"Just-in-time" examination and tests should be taken by pupils when they are ready rather than at predetermined ages - a practice which precipitates a debilitating sense of personal failure and loss of self-confidence for too many. Indeed the whole inspection and testing apparatus could and should be replaced by a system of schools self-reviewing every five years when a visiting accreditation team of HM inspectors, accompanied by a local advisory observer, would write a commentary on the school's self-review. They would also renew teachers' licences as "fit to assess".
The Pounds 750 million a year saved by this more rigorous system could be earmarked to pay for the 1.5 per cent home and community curriculum advocated earlier.
During the Millennium years perhaps someone will have the courage to say that even with Sir Ron Dearing's new set, the Emperor's clothes represented by the national curriculum are ridiculously transparent. That is not to say that a national curriculum is unnecessary, just that the present one is undermining standards in the basics and is inappropriate for the later junior years. Something much simpler and less prescriptive needs to emerge from the next review.
We need to cease to be pre-occupied by failure, doubt and self-denigrationDuring the Millennium and become committed to focusing on success, not in a mood of complacency but energetically embracing research at the level of the learner, the teacher, the school, the LEA and above all the Government in order to improve on the previous best.
Only a government committed to something along these lines will be fit to have the privilege of leading the country through the Millennium.
Professor Tim Brighouse is chief education officer of Birmingham