Globalisation and technology are changing everything. I first saw a computer in 1963. It filled a room; people in white coats pushed punch cards in at one end and, after much whirring and clunking, the machine produced bills for customers at the other end. Aged eight, I was in awe of it; 45 years later I can email and receive news from around the world instantly using a device smaller than a piece of toast.
Now scientists predict that by 2020, computers will have the learning capability of a toddler. That's a lot of learning capability. No doubt by 2050 computers will have the learning capability of a teenager, which means they won't get up in the morning.
The pace of change in every aspect of our lives is accelerating.
In the same half-century in which we have developed these extraordinary computers, we put a man on the moon, redeveloped great cities, produced inspiring works of art, made football a global game and spread good coffee to the furthest corners of the planet.
But we have also developed and spread weapons of mass destruction, unleashed brutal conflicts, destroyed habitats and wildernesses, widened gaps between rich and poor and overused vital resources, not least water. We have even changed the climate, with profound consequences for future generations.
Our triumphs and our tragedies are not separate; they are evidence of what the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt 200 years ago called "the chain of connection".
In these circumstances, isn't the single most important challenge facing humanity that we should educate the present generation, and the next, better than any previous generation?
To do that, we need ever better education systems and a concerted attempt to abolish poverty.
In Victorian times they said: "The poor will always be with us." Why, given all our creative capability and accumulated wealth, should we accept that in the 21st century? There has been progress, but it has been slow and too often has not connected measures which redistribute wealth to the liberating potential of education.
Knowledge is power, they say. And certainly we need knowledgeable people. But knowledge alone is not enough. We need people who can think both for themselves and with others.
Nor is knowledge plus thought enough, for we also need people with self-confidence. How many times have you left a meeting with someone who said they "didn't agree with that"? "Why didn't you say something?" you ask. And they reply: "I didn't think it was the right time." What they mean is that they lacked the confidence to make their views known. With the future of the planet - and therefore humanity - hanging in the balance, we cannot afford this any longer.
Knowledge plus thought plus confidence. For everyone. Now that would radically extend opportunity and reduce poverty.
All we would need then is to found our education systems around the world on an ethic of mutual interdependence and humility in the face of the mysteries all around us; what Humboldt called "the contrast between the narrow limits of our own existence and the image of infinity revealed on every side".
A major challenge? Absolutely. Can we rise to it? It is up to us.
If this is right, what are the implications for education systems? Let me pick out the three most salient.
- Knowledge plus thought plus confidence has implications for the curriculum, and as national systems, including England and the rest of the UK, review its various aspects, they should bear the concept in mind. The key, though, is to apply the concept at school level by offering consistently good teaching, positive school ethos and diverse opportunities that broaden young people's experience of the world. The best state schools in the UK are unmatched in this.
- An ethic of mutual interdependence and humility, while essential, is difficult territory for governments. I found this to my cost in 1998 when an otherwise innocuous speech I made at the conference of the Secondary Heads Association (now the Association of School and College Leaders) resulted in the front page headline in The Guardian: "Blair adviser promises code of ethics to replace God". This wasn't what I had said, but makes it plain that the ethics of schooling cannot be determined by government; instead, they must emerge from communities, with teachers and school leaders as catalysts. Policy adviser David Puttnam often says primary schools in England are leading the way on climate change.
- Ultimately, the most important factor in enabling systems to rise to this challenge will be attracting, retaining, motivating and developing teachers and school leaders who have the personal qualities, academic qualifications and ambition for the future. Systems around the world are beginning to focus on this "human capital challenge"; England's progress over the past decade is much admired.
Recently, at a celebration event for newly qualified teachers in Hackney, east London, I was inspired by the talent and the vibrancy of the new generation of teachers, but there are no grounds for compklacency.
Michael Barber advises governments on education and public service and wrote 'Instruction to Deliver' (Methuen, 2008), an account of the Blair government's efforts to reform public services.