The International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement in Manchester next week promises to start the new year with some appropriately positive inspiration (see centre pages). Delegates from 50 countries will confer on the latest ideas for raising pupil achievement at classroom, school, local and national levels. These are urgent priorities, not just in Britain, but throughout the world. The belief that schools can make a difference to children's learning - indeed, that they must do so to sustain not just national competitiveness but the economic and social fabric of what passes for the civilised world - is global.
So too are many of the measures being adopted in different countries to drive up school standards while reducing or controlling public expenditure: greater emphasis on measured school outcomes; more inspection and increased accountability through governing bodies or school boards; delegated funding and admission arrangements which encourage local autonomy and market competition; and greater priority for spending on elementary schooling where the social benefits are greatest.
Of course, because a fashion or movement is worldwide does not make its underlying beliefs correct. Many of these national measures have as much to do with asserting control over education - or the educators - as with any proven effect. There seems to be little hard international evidence that such measures really do improve children's learning overall.
In Britain, almost 10 years after the Education Reform Act, with public expectations of education at an unprecedented level and school improvement and effectiveness efforts burgeoning as never before in schools, universities, local authorities and at the Department for Education and Employment, there is little sign that basic literacy and numeracy have improved or that enthusiasm for learning has increased. Secondary school attendance figures are, if anything, worse than four years ago and exclusions have tripled. And far from "rolling up the tail of underachievement", GCSE results in England over the past four years have shown less than a two-point increase in the percentage getting five good grades, while one pupil in 12 continues to leave with no GCSEs.
Individual schools have improved their results; some of them have raised expectations of their own teachers, pupils and parents dramatically and against the social odds. But others, it seems, lack some essential ingredient - inspirational leadership, perhaps, or effective teaching, or faith in the abilities of their pupils. Or maybe they just lack whatever it takes to attract a better intake. It may be, of course, that nationwide reforms take longer than 10 years to have any marked effect. Studies of school improvement suggest there are no quick fixes when you set out to change the culture of a single school and this is likely to be even more true of efforts to transform a whole education service.
Governments are understandably in a hurry to see results, however, and Labour is no exception. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister last May, he acknowledged that teachers needed both pressure and support. The Government has duly promised increased spending to support schools in 1998, though it remains to be seen how much of this will percolate down into the professional development opportunities of the kind and on the scale needed. The Government, meanwhile, proposes to continue piling on the pressure in 1998. To be fair, it has also set itself and local authorities challenging targets. But all schools this year will be required to obtain approval for their own improvement targets against national benchmarks.
Labour also reached back in history to restore the public pillory in the form of "naming and shaming" for schools which persistently "fail" in the eyes of the Office for Standards in Education. One of the benefits of the benchmarking exercise, however, will be that for the first time the criteria applied in judging school performance against the social background in which it operates will be open and public, allowing their validity to be properly debated.
Labour has also set out to restore some professional pride with the long-sought General Teaching Council and this week by honouring success and dedication among the ranks in the New Year Honours list. How far these and other promotional measures will offset the impending recruitment crisis remains to be seen. But the omens for 1998 and beyond are not good. The pupils who will swell the demand for secondary teachers are already in primary schools yet recruitment for training in crucial specialist subjects falls well short of the Government's own targets. Already it is difficult to attract well-qualified, effective teachers to the kind of inner-city schools where real differences must be made if Labour is to make inroads into underachievement, alienation and social exclusion.
More technological solutions to the shortages of subject specialists are bound to be taken more seriously sooner or later; sooner perhaps, given the Government's own commitment to the national grid for learning and the expansion of the use of information technology in schools. Can the computer replace the teacher when what many underperforming children need most of all is greater inspiration and encouragement, and when attention is turning away from individualised approaches to learning towards the social potency being rediscovered in whole-class methods? Or could the high-tech classroom be just what many working-class boys need to turn them back on to learning as the cool thing to do?
Which takes us closer, as 1998 inexorably does, to 2000 and the national curriculum review. "Should less be prescribed to improve basic skills at the primary levels or to improve motivation beyond 14?" are the kinds of questions being asked. But the compatibility of a prepackaged curriculum with the idea that every classroom should be linked to the Internet may now also have to be addressed.
You do not need the World Wide Web to follow a predetermined programme of study; a CD-Rom or even - dare one say it? - a textbook is probably superior for that. The Internet is better suited to more open-ended learning where the answers are not predetermined, though basic skills and good general knowledge are still required to search for them.
Education action zones and the new powers to be granted to education authorities where they deem schools to be underperforming also occupy the terra incognita of the future in school improvement. Will OFSTED inspections quickly become superfluous as local authorities pre-empt their role, spot potential school failures and speed them on the road to recovery with well-placed advice and support? Probably not: there are real doubts whether many slimmed-down local authorities any longer have personnel sufficient in number or experience to carry out effective monitoring, let alone to step in and turn schools around. Those that think they do will quickly run into defensiveness on the part of headteachers and governors used to autonomy and suspicious of interference.
When such conflicts break out, the Secretary of State will usually hold the ring and - whoever he or she is under Labour - can be relied upon to do the pragmatic thing. Unlike the last government, Labour is not particularly interested in showing that grant-maintained schools, governing bodies or locally managed schools were a good idea. Nor is it particularly committed to sustaining local government unless it can demonstrate that it is useful - and cheap. Labour is committed pure and simple to raising standards in schools without raising taxes whatever that takes and no other principle, predilection or sectional interest will be allowed to get in the way of that in 1998.