The world is watching, Tony;Platform;Opinion

11th June 1999 at 01:00
The Prime Minister is playing for high stakes with school reforms, says Australian professor Brian Caldwell - the fate of state education across the globe could turn on their success.

There is extraordinary international interest in Tony Blair's agenda for schools. Much is at stake. If he succeeds, he will breathe new life into school reform in other nations, where state education is in some cases on its knees. Should he fail, under what many observers see as optimal conditions for success, there will be added impetus for a reconstruction beyond any seen since the advent of mass public schooling in the late 19th century.

There is an emerging global consensus about what makes a world-class school. Such a school meets high expectations for all its students. It connects them to a global, lifelong network of learning opportunities in a knowledge society. This vision transcends party boundaries, as does the pragmatism that characterises strategies to achieve it.

In Britain, Labour accepts much of the Conservative framework but expands private involvement in ways that were once unthinkable. In Australia, the conservative Liberal National government in Victoria has made structural changes along the lines of the 1988 Education Reform Act and now looks to the new British arrangements for ideas for the next stage of reform. Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, spoke at an Australian schools conference in April. The visits to Melbourne in May by education minister Estelle Morris and Anthea Millett, the Teacher Training Agency's chief executive, are testimony to a developing exchange of ideas and information.

Both countries have an interest in an expanded role for the private sector, new approaches to teacher development, high-level training for heads, and state-of-the-art applications of new technology.

My 1988 book with Jim Spinks, The Self-Managing School (Falmer), based on initiatives under moderate left-of-centre governments in Australia in the 1980s, was used extensively to train heads for local management of schools in the Conservative era. Our 1998 book, Beyond the Self-Managing School (Falmer), sits comfortably with Labour's agenda. We identify "tracks for change" common to the reform effort in many nations: the creation of self-managing schools (a change virtually complete in Britain); a shift of focus from structures to standards; and the creation of schools for the information age.

There is now a body of knowledge that will enable all schools to move down these tracks. But there are three imperatives if this agenda is to succeed. First, the culture of teaching and learning must be transformed to embrace a "new professionalism". This is not to decry teachers, whose achievements under fire in recent times have been truly heroic. But teaching in world-class schools should mimic the best medical practice - with a research-driven approach - using techniques that have been shown to work - together with continuous updating of professional knowledge.

Second, community support is required. Over the last half-century the feeling that "government should do it all" has meant much of this traditional support was allowed to wither. Labour's drive for greater voluntary effort and a bigger role for the private sector should therefore be applauded. In this regard, Australia and Britain fall well short of the United States where the value of public-sector volunteer work exceeds the gross national product of all but seven nations.

The third imperative is for professional education associations to get behind the cause of world-class schools - we need a "new unionism".

Undoubtedly Blair has a great opportunity. The Prime Minister is justified to claim, as he did at last week's annual conference of National Association of Head Teachers, that "never before have we possessed, at the same time, a national quest for change; a government committed to state education, ready to invest significantly extra money each year; and a programme of educational reform with huge support". Failure to seize that opportunity, he asserted, will "betray our generation and those that follow".

It is the project of state education that is at risk should he fail. Apart from the social and economic consequences, failure will almost certainly lead to reduced public investment and privatisation on an unprecedented scale across the world.

But success will lay the foundation for a reinvigorated profession that will drive a system of world-class schools, energise reform on an international scale, and assure the future of public education. That is why the world is interested.

Brian J Caldwell is professor and dean of education at the University of Melbourne.

FE Focus, 27

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