The debate on international comparisons traditionally divides into two camps: those who use them to highlight our inadequacies and those who say they teach us nothing because of cultural differences or flaws in methodology. But it is time to shift the debate onto new, more fertile ground. One way to do this is to benchmark our own system against the likely characteristics of a world-class education system in the 21st century. After a trawl of the relevant research, I came up with seven such characteristics. The result will, I hope, start a productive debate.
Autonomy in school management Across the world - in Australia, Canada and the US, and more recently in continental Europe and the Pacific Rim - the trend towards autonomy is unmistakable, although few systems have gone as far or as fast as ours, with the implementation of local management of schools now widely recognised as a success.
But the system the Labour Government inherited was blatantly unfair, something it is seeking to rectify by reform of LMS and a new framework for schools. The goal is schools which take responsibility for their own improvement and recognise their obligations to the wider community.
A constant focus on teaching, learning and best practice The system in this country has failed to provide teachers with systematic opportunities to know, understand and use proven best practice. Other countries do this better.
The Government has begun to redress the balance - a major task for the standards and effectiveness unit. Among the many initiatives since the election are the widely welcomed literacy strategy and the forthcoming numeracy strategy. Our recently launched prototype database: (http:www.open.gov.ukdfeebest.htm) will eventually give teachers access to guidance on best practice and schemes of work which will enhance their effectiveness, reduce their workload and relieve them of the burden of re-inventing the wheel in every classroom.
The capacity to manage national change Here again we are among the world leaders. This is due largely to the quality of performance data and the capacity, developed at local education authority and school level over the past decade, to manage change successfully. David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers remarks that the ability of primary and secondary heads to manage change should not be underestimated. We should pay tribute to that level of skill, which is the envy of the world.
Conscious preparation for the future through encouraging controlled and targeted experiments We have an uneven record in this. But modernisation is a central theme of New Labour policy; witness the National Grid for Learning and the investment of Pounds 200 million lottery money in computer training for teachers.
But there is more to modernisation than this. Our reform of the specialist schools programme, in which those receiving additional funding are required to make a wider contribution to a family of schools, is also important. So too is the development of out-of-school learning centres which will provide the time and opportunity to learn - a known feature of successful education systems.
But the centrepiece of our modernisation agenda is the education action zone, an explicit encouragement by central government of bottom-up initiative and innovation in challenging areas.
Promotion of equal opportunities An education system can only promote success for all if it rigorously examines variations in performance within the pupil population and acts on that information. It must develop policies which raise standards, but also tackle specific areas of underachievement, be they a result of gender, race or other factors. A thriving economy depends on everyone succeeding; we have learned the social and economic cost of school failure.
Promoting a culture of high expectations In comparison to other countries, our culture has expected little except from those identified as bright.
There is a fatalism in English society which robs people of aspiration. It is an attitude summed up in Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, where he observes that the British are the only people in the world who, when asked "How are you?" respond with "Mustn't grumble."
There are few problems which the Government has attacked so vigorously, not least by putting the extension of parental involvement, through home-school agreements, and greater representation on governing bodies and local authority education committees, on the agenda. In addition, the planned National Year of Reading will mobilise business, the media, publishing and the education service to promote literacy across society.
"Education, education, education" is not just a slogan; it is driving government policy. Cultures are notoriously hard to shift but the Government has made a start and is, I believe, swimming with the tide Funding In international comparisons, perhaps surprisingly, this country is usually in the top half of the developing world.
The relationship between funding and performance is tenuous. However, if funding alone is not the solution, it is certainly part of it. The learning society will require steady, predictable funding, spent mainly on teaching and learning and distributed to provide greatest support to those who have furthest to go.
The Government has already made more funds available, but the key will be delivering the commitment to increase the proportion of national income invested in education by the end of the Parliament.
This country has plenty to be proud of and the Government is taking steps to build on that, watched, in fascination, by Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, and the US. They sense the ambition of the Blair Government. They recognise the energy in our education service, and admire its openness and flexibility and they are beginning to recognise that Tony Blair's words at last year's Labour conference were no idle promise: "No failure. No muddling through. No second-best. High standards. The pursuit of excellence not for some children in some schools but for all children in all schools."
Michael Barber is head of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit