Our spectacular new vernacular

17th March 2000 at 00:00
RECENTLY, I arrived early at a conference on youth justice and heard a contribution from David Phillips, chief constable of Kent, on "The detective of the 21st century" - and wondered what this would have to do with my work.

In the 21st century, the detective, Phillips argued, will be nothing like the tough, independent-minded Philip Marlowe or the inspired loner Morse. He, or increasingly she, will be a manager, pulling together the strands of an investigation - policing, the law, the media, forensic science, psychology.

No one can be an expert in all of these fields but the detective will need the skills to bring out the best from the experts. Technology is changing the data available to detectives and increasingly they have to fight crime that knows no national boundaries. An explosion of knowledge, the pressures of globalisation and technology are transforming what detectives do. This is a profession that can't stand still.

Similar transformations are occurring in other professions,too. If you trace it back far enough, the first profession to be transformed was the priesthood. The moment bibles could be translated and printed, they could, as Henry VIII put it, be "rhymed and jangled in every alehouse in the country". The priest's magical control of information had gone forever. From the 16th century, his interpretation of the word of God was open to challenge by ordinary people. The Reformation was the outcome.

The present technological revolution challenges modern professions no less. Take the medical profession. The Internet provides the patient with a mass of health information. If the patient doubts this, he or she can ring NHS Direct and speak to a nurse with a set of highly reliable computer protocols covering most complaints. If in doubt, the nurse will refer you to a GP and in some places she can make the appointment for you. The doctor's role remains crucial but not as the first port of call, hile doctors' diagnoses can be challenged because information is available.

For professions operating in the public sector like medicine and the police - but unlike the law or the church - there are added pressures. Since the 1970s, the demands of the taxpayer to see results from public expenditure have been rising. People demand that professions be held accountable and that information be published. Statistics now published about police forces, hospitals and high-profile incidents - most notably the inquiry at the Bristol Royal Infirmary - are likely to add to these demands. The decisions to require publication of data are rightly government decisions but it's important to see their roots in the deep well of public concern.

For teaching, the Callaghan-Ruskin speech in 1976 can be seen as the symbolic origin of demands for accountability. In many ways, it leads the way. It is not uncommon to see political commentators suggesting that doctors should be as accountable as teachers already are.

Globalisation and technology are beginning to impact on teaching, too. Governments, conscious of the global jobs market, are looking to see how educational standards in their country compare with standards elsewhere. That is why, in the Teachers' Green Paper, the Government promised to expand the range of international exchanges available.

Meanwhile, technology is transforming access to material and best practice. Soon, through the Internet, there will be a wealth of excellent materials available to pupils, parents and teachers. (By the way, who were the people who searched 17,000 pages of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit's website on Christmas Day?)

Teachers may have more in common with detectives than I thought. Mr Chips can join Philip Marlowe as a museum exhibit from the 20th century.

Michael Barber is the head of the Department of Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit


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