It was once a world leader in inventing the Third Way, but this Government has now well and truly lost its way. Tony Blair wrote a pamphlet on the Third Way, and the LSE director, Anthony Giddens, became its theoretical guru. This policy is now stuck – especially in education.
In the First Way, the state supported everything in the public domain. It created conditions for opportunity and social mobility, set out an inspirational vision of social change and common good, and allowed professionals to get on with the job. The spirit of the times drew many innovative teachers into the profession, but it also tolerated incompetence and eccentricity.
After the first oil crisis in the early Seventies, a Second Way of markets and competition emerged where schools competed for clients, performance results were published and services outsourced. Initially, this generated energy and initiative, especially in secondary and technical education. But markets were then trumped by the standardised national curriculum, Ofsted introduced its culture of fear, professionals lost their autonomy and risk was squeezed aside.
New Labour's Third Way promised something between and beyond the market and the state. It kept competition but also restored educators' salaries, improved conditions, provided a focus on literacy and numeracy, invested in massive regeneration programmes, established networks of schools helping schools, and founded the world's first National College for School Leadership.
Paradoxically, achievement results have been disappointing. Sir Michael Barber concedes they have hit a plateau. Durham University's research points to little or no improvement in long-term literacy achievement. The Cambridge Primary Review exposed zero gains among the bottom 20 per cent. Meanwhile, the UK ranks dead last of 21 countries in Unicef's survey of child wellbeing. What has gone so wrong?
Last year, I took an OECD team to Finland: the world's top performer on PISA tests and in economic competitiveness. Finland has reinvented itself as a successful knowledge economy by connecting an inclusive mission of future technological creativity to its craft-like past, where all Finns study performing and creative arts until the end of secondary school. This mission grants teachers public status as creators of their country's future. It can therefore attract the best. Only one in 10 applicants is accepted. Highly qualified teachers develop curricula together in each municipality within broad "steering" by the state. Teachers work in cultures of trust, cooperation and responsibility for all the children in their school and city. Classes are smaller than 20, teachers know their children well, aren't inundated with interventions and they don't need scores and spreadsheets to figure out what their students need next. There are no SATs!
I am also a critical friend for the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) in Canada. Alberta is the second-highest PISA performer. AISI includes 90 per cent of the province's schools who identify their own improvement priorities and set shared and measurable targets for progress. Over half of them improve learning results significantly within three years.
In England, by contrast, while the Third Way has built better capacity, it has also increased government control. Obsession about politically imposed achievement targets has led to narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test and concentrating cynically on children near the borderline. High-capacity educators are hamstrung by political control-freakery. It's time for another Way.
Like Finland, high-performing Singapore and Britain's SAT-less Celtic fringe, the Fourth Way begins with an inspiring and inclusive mission. Yet England has become an easy-come, easy-go society of shopping, speculation and celebrity, where responsibilities to others have fallen by the wayside. The mantra of "world class standards" is a vacuous evasion of a vision. Narrowed achievement gaps are a technocratic reduction of it. England needs to reinvent an inspiring and inclusive identity.
The Fourth Way is about less government and more democracy. The government shouldn't drive and deliver, but steer and support. Public engagement shouldn't stop at the ballot box, the focus group or service delivery, but be evident in the development of neighbourhoods and communities as in America's tradition of community organising on which Barack Obama cut his political teeth.
The Fourth Way galvanises professionals by giving them opportunities to develop curricula together within broad state guidelines. Teachers set shared targets, rather than scurrying around to meet the targets demanded by others. In the Fourth Way, democracy plus professionalism, replaces bureaucracy and the market.
Finally, in the Fourth Way, responsibility comes before accountability. Accountability becomes the conscience that checks you, not the ego or id that drives you. It is applied prudently to samples (as in Finland), not profligately through an expensive census.
The elephant in the room of the Third Way has been an excess of government control. It is now time to forge a Fourth Way that will create room inside the government elephant.
The writer is Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College, USA, and visiting professor at the London Institute of EducationReuse content