Our chance to shape their future
That fundamental challenge explains why we need to look beneath the churning surface of journalistic feeding frenzy on any episode that "proves" the school system is at the cliff edge of collapse. Today's papers wrap tomorrow's fish.
It also explains why we should gaze beyond the panicky, end-of-term manoeuvrings of MPs scrambling for polling advantage. For politicians, death is the ultimate three-line whip - and few of today's headline grabbers, MPs or not, will claw their posthumous way even into the footnotes of history.
The fact that this century is ending with education so high on the public agenda, therefore, represents a grave risk and an exciting, but daunting, opportunity. The risk is that serious issues will be trivialised for short-term ambitions.
The opportunity is to revive the great debate that James Callaghan's 1976 Ruskin speech failed to stimulate. We should grab the chance. The Education Bill may be more about drawing up pre-election manifesto positions than enacting lasting solutions. Statutory instruments may be inadequate to deliver a gift-wrapped golden age. The Bill is, nonetheless, the context in which to start discussing the issues that really matter.
Pupil behaviour is, understandably, at the top of the agenda. What are we to do about the small, but worrying number of pupils gaining little from mainstream schooling, disrupting the education of children willing to learn, and presenting an unmanageable challenge to even the most talented teachers?
With all the evidence we possess about the connection between educational failure, unemployability and adult crime, what should we also do about the large, increasing and even more disturbing number of children who are either excluded from the educational system or who exclude themselves? About those who could live most of their adult lives in the brave new world of the next century as Aldous Huxley epsilons? And how will history judge teachers who were seen, by merely describing the problem and passing it on, to become part of that problem rather than concerned, involved contributors to the solution?
First, consider the essentially negative strategies. The Government's proposals to amend the exclusion arrangements are sensible as far as they go. They claim to want to strengthen the freedom of schools to exercise sensible judgments by giving them more flexibility. Well and good. Why, then, should local education authorities retain their power to over-ride the decisions a school makes over fixed-term exclusions? The parents of the problem child have chosen where they want their offspring educated. They want to stick with their preference.
The school concerned about the child's disruptive impact upon other children, and the stress upon teachers trying to cope, is not repudiating that choice. It has decided that a limited period of exclusion is essential if the problems it perceives, whatever their origin, are to stand any chance of solution.
We should not deny the excluded child's parents the opportunity to give their view to the school. On the contrary, we should encourage it. In the end, however, parents must accept that the school's professional responsibility is to the whole school community, and not to a single member of it, however deserving of individual attention. Save as a short-term (and expensive) strategy, school-based, one-to-one tuition cannot be the answer to balancing those conflicting interests.
At this stage, what should happen if a head teacher, with staff support, decides to exclude a child for a limited period, but the governors dissent?
The argument for greater clarity in how we distinguish governance and management responsibilities is powerful. In my view governors have an indisputable role in trying to conciliate over challenged decisions, but should not have the legal right to reverse them when they are short-term and operational rather than long-term and strategic.
Over decisions to exclude a child permanently, the situation is very different. Where parents, misguided or not, wish to appeal against the staff andor governors' judgment, I think it inconceivable that they should be denied that right.
LEAs here have a critical dual role: as representatives of the local community, and as guardians of the rights of individual members of it. Their umpiring role should go beyond making a stark choice between upholding a school's decision or overturning it, between insisting that the game continues or that the errant child should be sent off the pitch, with cries of "foul" whatever they do.
LEAs should have the legal duty, the power and the capacity to provide alternatives. The Government should, therefore, restore to LEAs a fall-back power over admissions arrangements and real resources (rather than fiscal fantasising) to fund pupil referral units.
Boot camps for refusnik juvenile offenders will not be cost-effective, value-for-money parade grounds to train young people to march, heads high, towards the millennium. Quite the reverse: they will discipline the disaffected to form into the serried ranks of the permanently alienated. The only dim consolation is that at least they won't become overnight TV stars.
Tory backbenchers - flushed with the courage of rebelliousness but with the complacent knowledge that their uprising will fail - argue that bringing back the cane, with parental support, will help us flog on to the year 2000. This is a serious distraction from the real issues.
The real answer lies in thinking hard about a different limitation to the Government's belated acknowledgement of the potential value of home-school agreements. Gillian Shephard is wrong to argue that schools should introduce them voluntarily. That would be a recipe for social selection on the basis of parental pledges, which many sincere and caring parents will feel unable to enter, particularly if corporal punishment were part of the deal.
David Blunkett is equally wrong to suggest that all schools be required to introduce them. The result would be the bureaucratic, emptily ritualistic generation of thousands of recorded promises not worth the paper they were written on.
The solution is not in phonily legalistic contracts between teachers and parents over pupils' behaviour alone, but in Michael Barber style individual learning plans for children at risk of exclusion. Schools and parents should have the duty - legal and professional - to make the attempt to negotiate these plans, sharing their joint concern and aspirations for the children in their mutual care.
That is the route to avoid home-school breakdown, to yoke parental anxiety to teacher professionalism, to harness the national challenge to raise standards by realistic and rigorous expectations for all children, particularly those at risk of gross under-achievement. Any failure to negotiate a plan becomes, of course, key evidence over whether to exclude or not.
That is how choice and diversity can become a millennial mission with meaning, and stop being the clapped-out slogan of those who prefer the slick phrase to real answers to real problems.
Peter Smith is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers