TAKE Tony Blair at his word. He really does believe in "education, education, education" as a central plank of a New Labour vision - perhaps the best example of a policy that produces simultaneously both economic efficiency and social equity. He does want a high quality state system; he is, after all, the first post-war Prime Minister who has sent all his children to state schools - a statement of personal commitment for which he gets too little credit. So far so good. However, after four years of useful, but small-scale interventions, there is little palpable sense of overall improvement.
Despite some improvement in examination results, there is still a long tail of underperforming secondary and primary schools. Overall standards are still no more than middling by international standards. Morale in many staffrooms remains at rock bottom. Too many school buildings and resources remain disgraceful - a clear message to pupils and teachers alike about the priority education is accorded.
What is lacking is a clear and articulate strategy accompanied by a sense of mobilisation and national purpose evident to all. New Labour is rich - the richest government in modern times. The national debt is low historically and in relation to other countries; the Government has spent less on current expenditure than it receives in current taxation for the past two years. The Government makes much of its commitment to raise education spending significantly over the next three years - but it is from a chronically low base, and not organised around really ambitious goals for education improvement. The truth is that it could afford - and should afford - to cascade a massive step change in spending around education. It should identify a series of explicit, ambitious and sequenced targets, because even a government as rich as this one cannot afford to move across-the-board on the scale that is required.
My wn preference is to start with primary education, where the returns from investment are the highest, and where the impact will spread to secondary schools as the cohort of five to 11-year-olds' progress through the system.
The Government should make a manifesto pledge that in the next parliament it aims to lift primary school standards for every British child up to the age of 11 to those that exist in the private sector. On every dimension - staff-pupil ratios, books, IT, sport and extra-curricular activities and quality of staff - the British primary school system in 2006 will match what is currently available in British private prep and pre-prep schools.
This will entail an affordable, large school building and recruitment programme. I reckon that the rough cost would be some pound;3 billion above current plans with up to another pound;1 billion on capital spending, which could be achieved with no increase in taxation and still meet Chancellor Brown's rather over-the-top rules for fiscal prudence. If pushed I would divert cash from national training budgets; the economic evidence is overwhelming that the precondition for successful training is high standards of basic numeracy and literacy.
I would follow up by making the same target for secondary education by 2011, if necessary raising taxes to fund this second wave of spending. Every citizen and family in Britain would be able to see the difference - and the scale of New Labour's commitment. The Government has the cash and the belief. Nothing is stopping it except pusillanimity, paralysing caution and fear of the Right - but if it made the step, the Tories would be compelled to match it. It is called leadership and agenda setting - something which the Labour party used to be brave enough to do. It should do so again.
Will Hutton is the best-selling author of "The State We're In" and chief executive of the Industrial Society