At the core of the Prime Minister's vision is the belief that a strong society with strong values of freedom, justice, tolerance and opportunities for all is necessary for individual advancement. Simon Midgley takes soundings.
Tony Blair's ambition to create a Third Way different from the old left and the new right has led to speculation as to what this new politics might mean for Britain. When he returned from policy discussions with President Bill Clinton in Washington in February, he said he wanted to create an international consensus of the centre-left for the 21st century. Since then there has been much discussion among the chattering classes as to what might constitute a third way.
In late March, in his address to the French National Assembly, the Prime Minister elaborated on his vision. The two challenges facing Britain and other countries, he said, were how to equip ourselves for economic change and how to impose some order in the face of social change. In other words, how to provide security in a world of change.
A third way, Mr Blair said, meant an absolute adherence to basic values - solidarity, justice, freedom, tolerance and equal opportunity for all - as the compass to guide Britain through change. The key belief was the importance of a strong community and society as the necessary means for individual advancement.
However, he added: "We should be infinitely adaptable and imaginative in the means of applying those values. There are no ideological pre-conditions, no pre-determined veto on means. What counts is what works."
Professor David Marquand, principal of Mansfield College, who attended a recent seminar at 10 Downing Street on the Third Way, says it appears that the Government is willing to evolve policy after widespread grassroots discussion and consultation.
Anthony Giddens, the director of the London School of Economics, says the Third Way is not a philosophy somewhere between the neo-liberal right and social democracy but beyond it.
Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman, says the Third Way is, for the left, an alternative to reaction. He says: "I think that there have been two great sorts of revolutions in the past 30 or 40 years: one was the cultural revolution of the Sixties and the other the political and economic revolution in Britain and America in the Eighties, Reaganism and Thatcherism. I think the great danger for both the right and the left is that they become reactionary, that they do not take either of those revolutions on board: the right does not take the cultural revolution on board and the left does not take the political and economic revolution on board.
"What the Third Way seems to me to be about, for the left anyway, is to find a way in which one can say: Well, now we have had this revolution, what do we do about it? How do we humanise it? How do we make a world that we feel comfortable with?" Tom Bentley, a senior researcher at Demos, a left-wing think tank, says that in some sense we are living in a post-ideological political age when fixed and narrow ideologies do not have the kind of sway that they have had for most of the century.
"That means that the way governments create political projects has to be more cautious in a sense, but they do also need to articulate political principles and translate them into policy. To do that, they need to be able to learn. Governments need to become problem solvers in a more creative way than they have done in the past.
"The Government needs to be ambitious, purposeful and to articulate what its project is, but it does not necessarily have the means or the legitimacy to be completely certain about the knowledge and the instruments that are required to achieve its goals. Its goals have to adjust as the project develops in response to the reaction of the population."
And this is where the importance of education comes in. If we want, he adds, to develop democracy in society, such a development depends on the education and preparation of an articulate, independent, well-equipped citizenry. If people are not able, ready and willing to participate in those ways, it's very difficult to develop a vibrant democratic society.
Interpreting what this means precisely for the future of education, schools, local education authorities and the involvement of business and commerce in learning and training can vary widely in educational and business circles.
A policy adviser close to David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, says it is being prepared to move beyond the shibboleths of either the old left or the new right and take an approach that has at its core the objective of simultaneously improving life chances for the educationally deprived and for everyone else as well. It is essentially for a dual purpose policy.
A national literacy policy, he says, will do wonders for the achievement of children in inner-city areas, but it is also important in restoring the confidence of middle class parents in state education. Similarly, nursery education for three and four-year-olds will be of immense benefit for those from educationally deprived backgrounds, but it will also be of broad benefit to all children regardless of background.
The Government's standards agenda will give children in deprived areas life chances they have not had before, but the way in which higher standards are delivered will improve both the standards of state education and the status of state education and of teachers as a whole.
This dual objective is, in broad terms, representative of the Third Way, he says. You cannot simply improve things in inner-city schools and not make improvements in other areas.
Other leaders in education and business interpret the Third Way in a variety of ways.
Deidre Eastburn, chairman of the National Education Business Partnerships Network, which represents 150 businessschool partnerships, says: "We welcome the Third Way because we believe that education in a community ought not to be left just to a group of professional educators. There is a functional sense in which education has got to prepare people for citizenship and wealth creation. From that point of view, we would see all sorts of work and business organisations involved in that broad educational effort.
"Given that we have experienced the nature of the partnerships and seen what good things come out on both sides, for both education and the business community, we have no doubt that the potential is there is to be successful.
"If we are looking at kids that are better prepared for what working life is all about, if you are thinking about what work will be like in 2020, if we are instilling in young people as they are being educated the notion that it is not a job for life for 40 years with a single large employer, but it may actually mean that you have to use a lot of your initiative to acquire your own income and wealth, I think that is all to the good.
"If you ask most businesses when they talk about the basic skills that they would like young people to have, they are not just talking about functional literacy and numeracy - they are actually talking about those skills that enable them to join a work team, demonstrate initiative and the right sorts of attitudes towards being part of an organisation."
Ian Pearce, director of education for Business in The Community, says: "Business would view a concept like the Third Way as meaning pragmatism, and Ministers who work to pragmatic action agendas, tackling the basic under-skilling of the UK, win support at business tables.
"If the Third Way means high pragmatism and low ideology, it will gain the backing of business. What business is really looking for is to tackle the root cause of under-achievement. This means focusing on those disadvantaged communities with residual low skill. In the age of the knowledge worker, where most new jobs require qualifications at level 3 and above, the unskilled are unemployable. Britain can no longer afford an education system for the elite - it needs high standards for all."
The notion of a third way is not new in British politics, says David Marquand. "In 1938 Harold Macmillan wrote a book called The Middle Way. The Labour government in the 1940s thought of itself as a third way between capitalist USA and communist Russia. People like Anthony Crosland and Hugh Gaitskell thought of themselves as revisionists producing a third way between conservatism and the traditionalist Labour left. The SDP certainly thought of itself as the third way. A lot of the rhetoric of third way-ers today is extremely reminiscent of the SDP rhetoric of 1981-5. Liberals have been talking about a third way ever since the Liberal revival of the Sixties and Seventies. The notion of a third way as such is very far from new."
* OPPORTUNITY FOR FOSTERING INNOVATION AND CHANGE - Kevin McNeany of Nord Anglia Education
In one sense, the Third Way is a totally amorphous concept that can mean anything you wish it to mean, says Kevin McNeany, managing director of Nord Anglia Education, whose company has put in a bid to participate in several education action zone partnerships.
"I see it as a dialectical pragmatism. It can be interpreted by people wherever they are coming from, so there's something in it for everyone. And to some extent it's useless, because people can very easily misunderstand and put their own interpretation on it and therefore disagree further down the road."
Those objections aside, he says it is important to grasp the partnership opportunities that the Third Way offers to schools and businesses.
"First, it should generate the opportunity to work in real partnerships with the long-term stakeholders, such as local education authorities, schools and colleges of further education.
"There is some evidence now beginning to emerge that perhaps the more deep thinking authorities in particular see that the future is one where partnership between public and private sectors is going to be best for their clients. The Third Way can only deliver and accelerate that.
"Second, it is bound to focus the emphasis on not who delivers educational products but whoever does it the most successfully and the most efficiently, with obviously the implication that those who deliver successfully and efficiently will be the ones who actually get the service to deliver.
"Third, it's an opportunity for initiating and fostering innovation and change. Inevitably it must give rise to new structures and to release creativity. To allow the marketplace, even if it's a regulated market, in the delivery of education products and services will, most crucially, raise the expectation of people who do not feel themselves as customers and clients, such as schools, teachers and ancillary staff.
"A company such as ours is very keen to work with state education and is increasingly keen on genuine partnerships. We are only beginning to see them forming fairly slowly as the light begins to dawn on the long-term stakeholders. We are now reasonably advanced in discussions with a number of authorities in respect of partnership. The LEAs forming partnerships in advance of the standards and frameworks Bill being enacted are being bright and seeing how the future will look.
"The Third Way seems to me to be a not unwelcome way of dealing with the enormous amount of publicity and heat that was generated by the idea of action zones."
* CREATIVE PARTNERSHIPS FOR THE GOOD OF ALL - Peter Smith of the Assocation of Teachers and Lecturers
the problem with simplistic sound bites, such as the Third Way, is that they often distract attention from, rather than focus on, quite complex issues, says Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.
"Few people in developed economies now believe that the public services, including the National Health Service, education and public utilities, can be financed wholly from taxation or indirect taxation," he says. "That immediately gets one into creative or imaginative partnerships, which can be public-private partnerships where there is clearly a profit element for the private partner or they can be arrangements which lawyers would call pro bono publico.
"And I do detect a change of mood in big business - a willingness to be philanthropic and conscious of their responsibilities to the community which I don't think was there five or 10 years ago."
One example of such partnerships is education action zones. "Partnerships of that kind are very mature and understood in higher and further education, but have come very, very late to schools, which I think is one of the reasons they are causing such shock waves," says Peter Smith.
"Another way of looking at the Third Way is to take the difficult issue of selection. Interestingly, I have just had a letter from CASE [the Campaign for State Education] asking us to sign up to a campaign to end selection. I think the specialist schools movement which this government inherited from the last government gives a very different sense to what selection could mean - child-centred selection rather school-centred selection, if it can be got to work.
"I think the comprehensive versus grammar schools debate has been sterile for a long time, but to say a comprehensive will provide the best kind of education for all children is, I think, a concept which is rightly up for scrutiny.
"The whole issue of how we manage, in terms of the consumer or user, and how we manage and achieve better value for money is a powerful influence on the debate as well.
"Where I think the jury is out is on whether it is likely to foster the kind of employer-employee partnerships which is, at least in part, what the Social Chapter was all about, and not just because it's cosy and nice but because it's good business.
"As far as the education service is concerned, I do not think that Ministers have taken on board what you need to do to change culture, which the private sector could tell them.
"We need very much a can-do culture and a restoration of teachers' corporate professional self-confidence, by which I do not mean complacency. I think this is a huge problem and I do not think it falls to any one person or organisation to solve it. It's something that everybody has got to work very hard at, including the unions."
Peter Wilby: 'The great danger for both the right and the left is that they become reactionary. The Third Way seems to be about finding a way to humanise this revolution'.
David Hart: 'It's the Government's way of delivering on the promise of maximum delegation of responsibility to schools and accountability by them for the results'.
David Marquand: 'I do not get the impression that the PM has a precise notion of what he thinks this is. This is very encouraging and, by definition, it is rather fluid'.
Kevin McNeany: 'The future is one where partnership between public and private sectors is going to be best for clients. The Third Way can only deliver and accelerate that'.
Peter Smith: 'Few now believe that public services can be financed wholly from taxation I And I do detect a change of mood in business - a willingness to be philanthropic'.
Anthony Giddens: 'We are now living in a new sort of society. The question is how to retain the traditional values of socialism when the economic theory no longer works'.