An incitement to resolution

1st January 1999 at 00:00
It is hard to ignore a dateline like I have today: the first day of the first month of the last year of the last thousand years. It isn't the big one yet, but we are into the countdown, living through a year that is not just fin de siecle but fin de millennium.

There are a few easy comparisons to be made with the end of the last century: an ageing queen on the throne; a technological revolution to mirror the late 19th century's industrial growth; huge lifestyle differences between rich and poor. It is much harder to relate to events and star performers when you go back to pre-1066 and all that, as is already evident from the first lists of millennial movers and shakers. (I vote for Darwin over the Earl of Sandwich myself.) We are just at the beginning of this mega-list game but, to avoid too much of a let-down in one year's time, we would do well to remember that the anticipation of these symbolic dates - just like the 10-year landmarks in our own lives - is usually followed by life going on much the same as before. You wake up and the Earth hasn't moved after all.

But that doesn't mean we should give up on new year resolutions (especially for other people), because they do help to focus the mind and the will of we weaker souls. I gave up smoking 20 years ago today. Another year I resolved to visit New York for the first time, to have my ears pierced and to learn German, and scored two out of three. But that is a lifetime's tally, so this year I am concentrating on other people.

First, a couple for the Government. Give up the Third Way and focus groups.

I am sympathetic to the thinking behind the Third Way. Yes, of course we want a guiding political philosophy somewhere between the wilder shores of capitalism and nationalisation, and between pure market-led hierarchies and state-directed uniformity in our schools. The difficulty for me lies in defining just which third way to take. There must be at least 17 different ways, between the extremes, of mixing social democracy with choice, excellence and individuality to create a better education service.

The consequence is that almost anybody can stick a "Third Way" label on to their own proposals for educational reform, which made even the debate in these pages on the subject less than enlightening.

It is even harder to believe in fashionable focus groups, once you have worked with them. The pro factors are that they add a democratic dimension to policy-making, and fill in some of the unanswered questions you are left with after a conventional opinion survey. But what you discover if you get the chance to eavesdrop behind the one-way mirrors is that many vox pop opinions are based on ignorance of the facts. "You've got that wrong!" you want to rush out and shriek, even if some of your respondents are teachers or parents.

Before you change your tactics with your market or your policies, it is as well to remember that focus groups, like management consultants, are mainly useful for confirming what you know already.

Next, a resolution for teachers: this is the year to assert yourselves as a profession, in time to wrest back some of the initiative from the Government and its Green Paper. I don't just mean a battle over performance-related pay. I'm talking about the potential power of a united teaching profession on professional issues; one which could provide the defining voice on what makes a good teacher, for example, before the policy-makers have settled it.

The strength of the Green Paper is that it offers a new and necessary vision of a teaching profession that you have to be damned good to get into and to progress in, and of the career development and reward structures that must underpin it. That ought to be good for schools and good for teachers, provided that they are among the partners who set the standards.

And finally, though I'm sure he needs no hints from me, I suggest to HM chief inspector of schools that he concentrates this year on developing his semi-detached style of leadership.

When the man who has the Prime Minister's ear on everything that moves in education tells us that tests central to government policy aren't working, it can't be long before he goes the way of Mrs Thatcher as PM and tells us that "the Government should do something about it".

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