At the Labour Party Conference last autumn, Tony Blair declared that his would be "a government of high ideals and hard choices". In this article, I will seek to explore that notion in relation to education.
All of us associated with education are working immensely hard to implement the reforms set out in the White Paper, Excellence in Schools. However much these reforms may be linked to what we all want - the creation of a world-class education service - each of us is surely entitled to pause from time to time and ask the question "why are we doing all this?"
In the 21st century, world-class standards will demand that everyone is highly literate, numerate, well-informed and capable of learning constantly. A curriculum to match these demands must provide firm grounding in basic skills, but also afford every pupil the opportunity to become creative, innovative and capable of leadership. This represents an immense challenge which goes beyond what even the world's most successful education systems are currently achieving.
While we in this country are at the global cutting edge in some fields, the Government is acting vigorously to help us catch up in the many where we are behind. It must do this because, as Tony Blair has asserted, "education is the best economic policy we have". The old economic holy trinity of land, labour and capital is no longer paramount. In the coming information society, the imagination will be king. Economic success will depend on a highly-educated, information-rich workforce, able to communicate through what, until recently, was an unimaginable range of means. And everyone will have to keep on learning, just to keep up.
Today, around 70 per cent of jobs involve cerebral skills and less than 30 per cent manual skills; 50 years ago, the reverse was true. University- educated people in their thirties and forties are five times less likely to be unemployed than the average person in that age range. There is no doubt, either, that levels of education among the local population are a key factor in attracting major international companies, which can often pick their site across the globe.
High standards of education may not guarantee economic success, but they are a precondition of it.
Facing up to the challenges of the 21st century is also vital for social cohesion. The link between social exclusion and poor educational standards is clear. Two-thirds of school-age offenders have either been excluded or are playing truant. In Britain's severely deprived estates, a quarter of pupils achieve no GCSEs at all, compared to 8 per cent nationally. And those with the lowest income are also those with the lowest levels of literacy.
Just as land, labour and capital on their own no longer determine economic growth, so the resolution of inequality and social exclusion is no longer simply about redistributing income. It is about opening up opportunity through life-long learning and creating social capital by challenging network poverty. And as those who start off better educated are much more likely to return to learning, however much we develop our adult further and higher education, the learning society depends on more people getting it right first time, at school.
Ethical issues cannot be separated from the economic and social arguments I have already made, but constitute perhaps the most profound reason of all for seeking to achieve the highest standards of education. There is a fundamental question facing us in late-20th-century society. Over the past 200 years, the belief systems that sustained Western societies have crumbled away. Christianity, which established the ethical codes for most of the last 2,000 years, though still hugely influential historically and culturally, has far fewer adherents than a generation ago. Without it, all that remains is the quicksand of cultural relativism and a rampant consumerism.
Not before time, there is a growing realisation that an amoral society of unfettered individuals competing in global markets is inconsistent with ensuring a planet fit for future generations.
It would be profoundly dangerous to ignore the threat posed to everyone by global injustices. Whatever else the school system in a country like ours achieves, surely it should help to create a generation which is not only well educated academically, but also has a highly-developed sense of responsibility for others, and of global as well as national citizenship.
All these arguments contribute to the sense of moral purpose which underlies the Government's commitment to creating a world-class system. In pursuing these high ideals it is constantly required to make hard choices, and having the courage to make them is central to achieving this goal.
It was not easy to take a public stance on the 18 failing schools that were named last May, but the alternative was to betray the pupils in those schools and to deny them the chance to participate in the society of the future.
It was not easy to relax the primary curriculum outside the core subjects. No one wants a narrow curriculum without music, art, history, geography or PE. But in response to the White Paper consultation, and to ensure that children are literate and numerate, we reduced prescription while insisting that all subjects should be taught.
Every resource decision is a hard choice. The additional allocation of pounds 23m for school books two weeks ago was widely welcomed, but any one of us could think of other parts of the service where pounds 23m would be just as welcome.
The Government can achieve its aims only by establishing clearly-articulated goals and sticking to them, by celebrating proven successes, by speaking plainly when there is evidence of failure, by being open to ideas and prepared to learn from constructive proposals, and by developing inclusive partnerships with all those - professional and lay, public and private, national and local - committed to high standards.
This involves hard choices every day but the goal is certainly a high ideal.
The writer is head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department of Education and Employment.
This article is an abbreviated version of the City of York Annual Education Lecture delivered on 5 February.Reuse content