AT A NUMBER of conferences recently, teachers have asked me about "the big picture" given that media coverage of the Government's education programme inevitably focuses on individual proposals. This is my answer.
We in the education service are now presented with a unique opportunity to raise standards because, for the first time, we have a government committed to giving education priority for the full term of a parliament. There is also a commitment to consistent, real growth in education expenditure over the next three years from which early years and primary education will be the biggest beneficiaries.
In addition, as our consultation exercises have shown, there is widespread support for the Government's reforms from parents, governors, business and the media as well as from many people in education. This favourable conjunction of circumstances has never occurred before and we must make the most of the opportunity. The reform programme can be separated into two waves.
Since the election, teachers have responded with great commitment to the first wave of reform, now in its implementation phase, which has three main aspects. First is an emphasis on laying firm foundations. The Sure Start programme, the introduction of nursery education for all four-year-olds and for more three-year-olds, the implementation of the class-size pledge, and the literacy and numeracy strategies are all part of this aspect. Taken together, this amounts to no less than a revolution and provides a real chance to usher in a modern, forward-looking primary sector for the new century.
The second aspect is the promotion of a model of improvement throughout the school system - primary, secondary and special. This is being brought about through setting clear standards, giving schools responsibility for improving themselves, providing them with benchmarking data on which to base targets and with best practice advice, holding them to account through inspection and publication of data, and intervening in inverse proportion to success. The result should be a system that meets the needs of every individual from the most gifted to those with special needs.
The third aspect is the drive for inclusion. In the long run, the literacy and numeracy strategies will make a crucial contribution here too but other important policy developments are already making a difference: the new approach to special education needs set out in the 1997 Green Paper, a huge expansion of out-of-school learning, the introduction of local authority behaviour support plans and full timetables for excluded pupils, for example.
The second wave of reform, now largely in the development stage, is designed not to overtake the first wave but to help ensure its successful implementation and to prepare the education service for the changed world of the 21st century. Investment in the information communication technology infrastructure (the National Grid for Learning) and the use of ICT in pedagogy are major aspects of this second wave. It will also involve "joining up" policy across the traditional boundaries of local and national government and of the public and private sectors, the extension of diversity through, for example, the expansion of the specialist schools programme and encouraging innovation through education action zones. Above all, the Green Paper on teachers opens up a vision of a profession which has the rewards, training, support and leadership it deserves.
All of these should improve the capacity of the system to deliver higher educational standards. They will contribute to the creation of a world-class education service. An education system second to none is, of course, not an end in itself. It is a key element of achieving the Government's goals of a more productive economy, a more cohesive society, a more successful democracy and more fulfilled individuals.
Michael Barber is head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit