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Caught in the harsh glare of the political limelight

There has been much talk in the past week of the pre-election campaign descending into unedifying abuse. But although the insults have indeed started to fly thick and fast and although the spotlight should not have been allowed to dwell on the schooling of an 11-year-old boy, the concentration of the two main party leaders on education has elicited useful information about their intentions. Paddy Ashdown of the Liberal Democrats, as leader of the third party, is most vehement in pooh-poohing the level of Tory-Labour debate, but since he claims education as his own territory he, too, should be glad of the attention it is receiving.

Thanks to the Secretary of State for Scotland we have learnt more about political discrimination between selection, streaming and setting than ever before. Tony Blair, eager to re-establish Labour's credentials following the Harriet Harman affair, has also explored the merits of what researchers (although not politicians) call "differentiation".

The prime reason why party leaders intrude upon matters normally left to their professional advisers owes little to intellectual curiosity and only slightly more to the improvement of schools. The appeal is to voters in the hope that once the election is called education will appear to "belong" to one party or another in the way that the economy, defence and the fight against crime featured as Tory strongpoints throughout the eighties.

Despite these caveats, the attention to standards in schools is welcome if for no other reason than that politicians are latching on to and putting force behind ideas current in educational circles. The case for the setting of pupils according to ability within secondary classes is made by many teachers as well as by Conservative apologists. Although it is contested by prominent researchers (page five), it deserves the attention and analysis granted by a place in the political limelight.

Mr Blair's enthusiasm for after-school homework clubs will strike Scots as familiar. Where Strathclyde has led and where the Prince's Trust has given publicity, the Labour party is keen to follow. Since there is evidence that pupils benefit academically from the chance to do their homework in regulated peace, anyone interested in raising standards should welcome investment in such opportunities nationwide.

The Labour leader's other idea-of-the-week demands a more sceptical response. Able children should be stretched as he wants, but not by having them skip a class upwards, even for a single subject. Past experience in Scotland of academic force-feeding at the expense of social integration within an age-group is not happy. Within a mixed-ability class (say in S1 and S2) or through setting, the talents of individuals should be identified and allowed to flourish. That puts a professional burden on teachers, with consequences for time and resources, but not even politicians can expect that educational improvement will come cheap.

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