Universal schooling, even in rich nations, is a relatively recent phenomenon. It still doesn't exist in large parts of South America, Asia and Africa. Yet education in all societies has been in existence and valued for thousands of years.
Its purpose that binds the past with the present and the developed with the undeveloped world involves the elders in any society seeking to ensure their young learn those skills that will enable them and their society to survive and thrive. They hope too that the young will carry on the beliefs that underpin their culture and acquire the learning that extends the knowledge which their society values.
Once it gets to schooling, the complications creep in. The present debate, for example, about wraparound education - 8am until 6pm- for children of working parents is a reminder of the "child- minding" function that led so many schools in the nineteenth century to be built alongside factories and mills. It was convenient for working parents; and it reminded the children of their expected role in life. The church, the other favourite location for schools at the time, not only emphasised the importance of values and beliefs but also raised the vexed question of the role of organised religions in state schooling. In this country they have had a significant role: in others, such as France and America, they have not.
The purposes and aims of education vary subtly and in detail according to country and society, each one of which has different values and culture.
What suits tribal sub-Saharan Africa is not identical to the purposes of sophisticated East Coast Bostonians.
In what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls our 'Runaway World', the speed of change and easy communication bring with them the need for two other educational purposes (at least for a country like ours), aims which our predecessors did not emphasise. Increasingly, the actions of any one country or society impinge on another - not just economically and socially, but environmentally. If, as they must, the aims of education and schooling embrace future needs as well as those of the present and the traditions of the past, then the issue of our environment is, or ought to be, a collective concern. It might just one day persuade the United Nations to go beyond agreeing a Declaration of Human Rights and elaborate an agreed international dimension to all national curricula.
But the international dimension has introduced other considerations. One of the aims of a modern education must surely be to enable all our young people to live according to the rules of what John Rawls calls "the fact of reasonable pluralism". We respect, not simply tolerate, each other's views of what constitutes the good life. We argue vigorously that our view is the right one but we respect other people's way of life. This is one of the many ways in which Rawls' 'Theory of Justice' (1971) has influenced Western governments. Ideas of fairness and equality which we now take for granted would not have held sway in a more hierarchical and male-dominated past.
Access to education and success was rationed for the few. Women knew their place. When these relatively new ideas of fairness and equality collide, as they do in modern Britain, with others brought from the developing world by economic migrants, then schools have a clear duty to seek to ensure that our future citizens live by the rules of "reasonable pluralism" but understand that our society abides by the new values of fairness and equality for all, even if some families and religious convictions do not support these values.
In one sense the modern aim of education is perhaps best and most beautifully expressed by William Temple, the socialist Archbishop of Canterbury and headmaster of Repton, in a piece that influenced R A Butler, author of the 1944 Education Act, the year of Temple's death.
"Until Education has done far more work than it has had an opportunity of doing, you cannot have society organised on the basis of justice; for this reason, that there will always be a strain... between what is due to a man in view of his humanity with all the powers and capabilities, and what is due to him at the moment as a member of society, with all his faculties still undeveloped, with many of his tastes warped, with his powers largely crushed. Are you going to treat a man as what he is, or as what he has it in him to become... and business requires that you should treat him as what he is; you cannot get rid of that strain except by raising what he is to the level of what he might be. That is the whole work of education. Give him the full development of his powers; and there will no longer be the conflict between the claim of the man as he is and the claim of the man as he might become. And so you can have no justice at the basis of your social life until education has done its full work. And then again you can have no real freedom, because until a man's whole personality has developed, he cannot be free in his own life. And you cannot have political freedom any more than you can have moral freedom until people's powers are developed, for the simple reason that over and over again we find men with a cause which is... just, are unable to state it in the way which might enable it to prevail... There exists a mental form of slavery which is as real as any economic form. We are pledged to destroy it... if you want human liberty you must have educated people".
The male language used neatly underlines some of our changed values and the piece itself highlights the moral and individual entitlement rather than the economic and collective one.
Changes in curriculum both now and for the future will stem from a better analysis of the implications of our age of information technology and creativity than the backward- looking national curriculum displays. More emphasis on the collective as well as individual learning and assessment, a more focused use of the learning and communication technologies, and a stronger international dimension are just three of the obvious contenders for more consideration.
Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to London schools