In 1961, John F Kennedy, newly-elected, announced that by the end of the decade, the United States would land a human being on the Moon. It seemed a daunting task. Many Americans were sceptical. They criticised the young, visionary president for promising the impossible. But though he did not live to see it, he was proved right. Neil Armstrong took his giant stride before the decade was over.
In a sense, of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the president had made such a high profile commitment to the target, it was prioritised across government. Public and private sector worked together. Every ounce of scientific knowledge relevant to the challenge was assembled. Boundaries of understanding were extended. And Apollo took off.
In 1993, the National Foundation for Education Research examined literacy standards since the war. They examined a range of data and concluded that over those five fateful decades, literacy standards had hardly changed at all. While this may be of some comfort to those who believe that the criticism of current standards had been exaggerated, it is hardly encouraging. After all, we know that in areas as varied as health care, broadcasting and car manufacture over the same period standards have been transformed.
Moreover, we know too that anyone who wants to play a constructive part in shaping the next century whether in the workplace, the community or the home, will need standards of literacy far higher than those of the past. In short, the idea that standards of literacy should remain the same for the next five years as they did over those 50 years is not an option. Instead, we must sustain the evidence from last year that at last they have begun to rise. The same applies to numeracy.
That is what lies behind the new government's announcement last week of challenging targets for both literacy and numeracy: that by 2002, 80 per cent of children should achieve at least Level 4 in English by the age of 11. And 75 per cent should achieve that level in maths.
Since at present only 57 per cent meet the literacy target, there is no doubt that it is ambitious. The following day, the head of an excellent inner city primary school rang me. The targets were silly, she said. Why? Because, she suggested, not every school can reach 80 per cent. I argued. Meeting the target does not require that, I pointed out; the target focuses on children, not schools. Some schools will exceed the target by far and so they should. Others will strive towards it but, because of the pressures on them, may fall short. What matters is that every school is setting targets for itself and improving against its previous best.
That may be, she retorted, but what about all those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs? They'll never make it. Knowing her school had more than its fair share of these, I risked asking her how many reached Level 4 in English in her school last year. Her answer ended the argument. Eighty-five per cent, she said.
And that, surely is the point. We know that the target is achievable, because there are schools with very mixed intakes achieving it already. To make it happen, we need to ensure that all primary schools have the opportunity to learn what the best do. We need to make sure that all primary teachers have the opportunity to learn the methods of teaching reading that are known - from research across the globe - to work best. And the Government needs to convince primary teachers that literacy and numeracy are not just the flavour of this month but will remain a priority over the next five years and beyond.
More that that, we need to change expectations across society. The National Year of Reading in 1998-99 will be designed to start that process. Through extensive use of the media and local and national campaigning every parent, every adult as well as every child will be challenged to think how they could contribute to making this country a more literate society. Publishers such as Random House and Macmillan, booksellers suchas WH Smith and a range of media organisations have already declared their enthusiastic support for the initiative. One major gain from the event should be that at last teachers will find themselves swimming with rather than against the cultural tide.
A single year on its own won't be enough. The gains will need to be sustained well into the next century. Home-school agreements will ensure that all schools benefit from the good practice of some in building the close collaboration between parents and schools which is so crucial to success.
Meeting the target will have immense benefits. The main one, of course, will be the enhanced life chances of children as more of them are able to build on a strong foundation - but there will be others, too. In the long run, the country will save money as it requires less remedial provision at secondary level and fewer young people find themselves unemployed or caught up in the criminal justice system. A significant part of the pound;10 billion a year which illiteracy costs this country will become available to invest more creatively in education or other public services.
And, not to be forgotten, primary teachers, after a difficult decade, will surely at last gain the public respect that their contribution to our society deserves. Achieving these targets will depend on teachers and government working together better than they have been able to do in the recent past.
That is why, in launching these targets, Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett made it clear that he expected the Government to be held accountable, with the education service as a whole, for the achievement of certain goals. It won't be easy but there is a wonderful opportunity ahead for a collective drive to do something even more important than fulfilling Kennedy's dream. We have the chance to land all our children on the Moon.