Leading Article: Lesson one: change the culture of learning

Don't be too clever, and if you are clever, for goodness' sake don't tell anyone; such is the anti-aspiration, anti-education ethos that still runs deep in the national psyche. Even Kipling agrees: "Don't look too good, nor talk too wise," run the words of advice for the perfect young Brit in the nation's favourite poem. That insidious culture - not teachers, not teaching methods, not the curriculum, nor the structure of school funding - is the biggest obstacle to solving British underachievement in education. So, when Tony Blair talks about changing attitudes towards learning, and about making education a national priority, we agree: something has be done.

Moreover, although policies on homework and parental contracts sound lightweight in the face of Britain's substantial education deficit, these are exactly the kinds of proposals which could strike at the heart of this cultural problem. Our difficulties have been rehearsed time and time again. The bright, sparky elite who glitter their way into the top universities do very nicely out of the education system, thank you. But the people in the middle, especially the lower middle, and certainly at the bottom, could do much, much better. Travel across the sea, or even just across Hadrian's Wall, and you find those average achievers are far better qualified, and more attractive to prospective employers.

The hostility towards hard learning among huge swathes of the population, and the unwillingness of the establishment to do anything about it, must take a considerable amount of the blame for this state of affairs. You hear it in every playground. The boys are the worst. Enjoying a maths lesson is distinctly un-cool. Practising French verbs could get you lynched on the way home. Clever children, hard-working children, have to dissemble in order to assimilate. It's OK to be streetwise, but boffins are out, and swots are even worse.

Nor is this merely the counter-culture of feckless teenage rebels. Plenty of students take a similar approach: effortless superiority is fine, but only squares get down to the hard graft. Parents would rather see their sons out playing football or chasing girls than stuck in a corner with a book. And our national heroes are the Bransons who make a packet out of sheer pizzazz (a grown-up version of being street-wise) rather than training the brain. So education, for too many families, remains something that happens in schools, behind closed gates. The older generations are oblivious to it (either baffled or indifferent), the young see it as something to rebel against.

Of course plenty of parents do prize education, and do understand the importance of family encouragement and learning in the home; their kids get a great head-start. Those parents who were well educated themselves, for whom qualifications proved the springboard to prosperity, can and do provide their children with particular educational advantages. They know how to work the system, they are happy bouncing into schools to chat with teachers about the best help they can give young Jack and Sophie at home, and, if rich enough, they can even pay for the private schools that drown their pupils in homework each night.

For too long the politicians, the civil servants and the educational establishment (all education-worshipping parents themselves) have allowed this dichotomy to persist. The daughters and sons of keen parents, instilled with enthusiasm (or at least respect) for learning and helped with homework from an early age, stand a good chance of doing well. The children whose parents do not encourage them to learn may still become academic achievers, but they will have to work much harder at it.

In the circumstances, then, home-school contracts which outline what schools expect from parents make an awful lot of sense. Drawing all parents into the education system can only be a good thing. To tell mums and dads how they can be supportive at home is not hectoring; it is merely enabling them to give their children the help and advantages that other parents already provide. At the same time, ensuring that schools give all children homework is a good first step towards taking learning into every home. Children can enjoy a bit of education free from destructive classroom peer pressure. The bright ones can get a bit of extra stimulation, the struggling ones the opportunity to fill in the gaps. Blurring the absurd and artificial distinction between school-where-you-learn and home-where- you-play is extremely important.

Of course, a bit more homework and a universal contract will not solve every educational ill. Homework is of limited use if it is simply an extra half-hour of bad education. British workers already endure long hours just for the sake of it, compared with our Continental colleagues. Extending the macho culture of presenteeism back towards the nursery won't help anyone at all. Meanwhile, contracts that lecture and patronise, and apply sanctions to the poor children whose parents will not play ball, would be counter-productive as well as horribly illiberal. Any new policy has to take account of the fact that for some children, home will never be a comfortable environment in which to learn or work.

If Labour's policies are to work, the legislation must not be too prescriptive. The role of government is to set the framework which best encourages schools and families to work together to improve Britain's education, rather than dictating from on high the details about hours and obligations for every child. But perhaps more important, governments can take the lead, shaping climates and changing aspirations. Even just to set the nation talking about education, its value and its importance, is a step in the right direction.