It's the little things that count. When the Chancellor Gordon Brown makes a big fanfare Budget announcement of a zillion new pounds for education, it hardly registers (Smoke-and-mirrors money, no doubt already in the school? We'll believe it when we see it.) And yet a report in The Times of the tiny amount of pound;80,000 in this year's Budget intrigued me. It is being made available to expand Army combined cadet forces, particularly in deprived areas. Is this a taste of what life under Mr Brown will be like?
The information came alongside news of a report called Freedom's Orphans, issued by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the left-wing think-tank. Based on surveys of children born in 1958 and 1970, it says that over the past decade or so, personal and social skills have become 33 times more important in determining a child's life-chances. They consider that this is leading to a widening gap between rich and poor, with those lowest on the social ladder having fewest opportunities to take part in the kind of activities that develop those skills.
And yes, cadet forces are one of the recommendations, along with scouts, guides and that old favourite "house" systems. What the authors like about such activities is their structure, discipline, uniform and hierarchy. They ensure that children of different ages interact, and that identity is not dependent upon existing peer and social groups.
Here, I must declare an interest. I was too long-haired and liberal ever to fancy being bawled at in the cadet force, but I was patrol leader of the Owls. When I was interviewed for my current headship, the panel asked how I had learnt leadership skills. I answered, without a hint of postmodernist irony, that I had been in the scouts.
What better preparation for leadership than having to organise and motivate a group of your peers to collect and chop wood, teach them how to light a fire and roast a chicken in the embers - all in the real context of knowing that if it went wrong, then you would go hungry?
The IPPR recommends that all children aged 11-13 should be made to take part in two hours of structured extra-curricular activity each week, with parents punished if their offspring do not attend, just as they are for their children's truancy.
This creates a dilemma. It tackles the issue of social inequality by ensuring that all participate, but it also changes the quality of the experience. Being in the scouts also taught me the best place to hide a packet of 10 Embassy and six cans of brown ale behind the tent. The interaction with adults in a voluntary organisation - from football clubs to youth clubs - is different from that of a school, less sanitised and more real. It is no accident that we often look outside of school for mentors for our most troubled pupils.
It is the job of schools to structure children's organisation, learning and teaching so that the development of social and leadership skills matters as much as GCSE grades. We can take on responsibility for the sort of activities being recommended (schools can do anything!), but in doing so we offer a second-best, official, squeaky-clean version. We also absolve parents and others of their duty. Girl Guiding UK does not have enough volunteer leaders for the 50,000 girls waiting to join. To locate the solution solely with us in schools is a cop-out by society. What about the rest of you?
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Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon