Spice up your life, we're going to be talked about

5th December 1997 at 00:00
It may be peculiarly British but we normally like to compare ourselves unfavourably with other countries. Sometimes we have no choice. We aren't as good at cricket as the Australians, however much we might want to be. Our beaches are filthy compared to European ones. And coffee in our motorway service stations is still abysmal.

But all too often we fail to recognise the many things at which we excel. We reinforce this by having an outdated view of our own country. The pace of change in technology, the economy, business and services is so fast that inevitably cultural assumptions lag far behind.

Here, for example, are 10 things I believe we're excellent at (though I don't expect everyone to agree, since scepticism is something else at which we excel): Print journalism; theatre; fashion and design; soccer; popular music (except the Spice Girls); restaurants; London; comedy; health care, and making Japanese cars.

And shortly we should be able to add education to the list. When we compare standards here to those in many competitor countries, we don't come out too well, especially in mathematics. But in the world beyond these shores, there is immense interest in what is happening here. It did not go unnoticed in the rest of the developed world that the newly-elected Government in Britain put education at the heart of its programme. Naturally, other political parties have attempted to do the same elsewhere but there are characteristics here which make the Blair commitment unique.

First of all, the previous Government had driven education reform here further and faster than anywhere else in the world, except perhaps New Zealand. Second, Blair placed education at the heart of the project of preparing Britain to compete in the global economy of the future. Third, the combination of the British constitution and Blair's huge majority provided the British Government with the opportunity to carry through its promised programme. That programme may have drawn heavily on evidence of what works both in reform and school improvement but there is no escaping the fact that as it advances, it is at the global cutting edge of education reform. We are boldly going where no school reformers have gone before.

I only became conscious of this in the last few months through meetings with policy-makers from Australia, the United States and Germany. The Australian government, for example, has a literacy strategy of sorts but, as a federal state, is unable to co-ordinate it across Australia. All it can do is set some optional standards, allocate some marginal funds and exhort in hope rather than expectation.

The American federal government has similar difficulties. President Clinton, like Blair, is a strong believer in the importance of education but even assuming he can convince a recalcitrant Congress of his ideas, there is little he can do as education is a responsibility of the 50 states.

As a result, in Australia and the USA, school reform is variable. There is much that is impressive but much else that leaves a lot to be desired. We, by contrast, have the opportunity for a truly national programme. This presents the Government with a huge opportunity but also, of course, an awesome responsibility.

Then there was the meeting I had with the minister of education from Hessen, Herr Holzapfel. He is committed to similar objectives to the Government here: higher standards of literacy and numeracy, a focus on underperforming schools and an urgent drive to improve standards in big cities, in his case Frankfurt-am-Main.

While in the second half of the 20th century the Germans have had a school system that is the envy of the world, they are beginning to wonder if it will be appropriate for the 21st century. Herr Holzapfel would like to emulate the emphasis here on schools taking responsibility for their own improvement. He admires the openness of our debate about school performance and he is jealous of the quality and depth of the data we have - from national assessment and inspection - on school performance. Most of all, given that his party commands a slender majority of one in the Landestag, he is green with envy over Blair's majority of 179. He curses, perhaps light-heartedly, proportional representation.

All of which is not to say that we have all the answers or that in terms of standards we are there yet. But it is to argue that we just might be onto something. The power of schools taking responsibility for their own improvement, the public debate about educational performance and a new Government with the power and commitment to lead a crusade for higher standards throughout a parliament suggests we have a real opportunity. Over the next few months, the Government will seek to build on the successes of the current system. Last week we published a document, drawing on best practice in schools, on the target-setting process, From Targets to Action.

Shortly, schools will receive benchmarking data enabling them to compare their own performance to that of similar schools. This will be followed by advice on school self-evaluation. If each school can do what many have already achieved and link targets, benchmarking and self-evaluation in a virtuous circle, the conditions will be in place for success. Government, for its part, will need to celebrate the proven successes of the system, maintain a clear focus on the long-term agenda and deliver the necessary resources.

Oscar Wilde is famous for being quoted as saying that "there's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's not being talked about". Over the next few years, the eyes of many people involved in education in other countries will be upon us. Whatever else happens in the next few years, we are about to find ourselves being talked about.

Michael Barber is head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit

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