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An echo among distant lands

Neil Munro reports on ministerial meetings of minds between Scotland and the other side of the world

If Peter Peacock had issued a communique following his Easter fact-finding trip to New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, it would probably have featured the words "reassuring" and "challenging".

The Education Minister, whose two-week visit included talks with his New Zealand and Singapore counterparts, concluded that Scotland can learn from their experiences - whether it be the reassurance that we are on the right track or the challenge of realising that much more needs to be done.

Mr Peacock held an intensive series of discussions with officials in all three countries and was quickly made aware that the preoccupations are the same, even if the answers are not.

He agreed with Ng Eng Hen, Singapore's Minister of State for Education, that "there are no right answers in education, simply a series of trade-offs".

Singapore is perhaps the most remarkable example of this and of an educational journey which is similar to Scotland's but which began from a very different point. Once known for its system of command and control, the island of 4 million people is introducing more flexibility into schools, promoting creativity in learning, attempting to give pupils a more enterprising outlook and setting up specialist schools in the arts and music. It sounded very familiar.

Dr Ng himself noted the similarities between the two governments' policies, despite the contrasting settings of what he described as his own very "homogeneous" system and Scotland's much more varied one.

To the outsider, Singapore enjoys considerable advantages, from consistently top rankings in international school performance to the more deferential attitudes of its pupils. But, Dr Ng observed, economic and social changes now require students "who can think out of the box, as well as those who do well in formal tests".

The pupil disruption and misbehaviour which so exercise Scottish ministers are absent in Singapore. But there are other challenges. "Our MPs don't talk about behaviour and discipline problems in schools," Dr Ng remarked during his exchanges with Mr Peacock. "They talk about educational stress among students."

While Singapore did not want to see an end to the deferential culture (pupils routinely bow before their elders in school), he did want students to be able to say "we think the teacher is wrong" or for the teacher to admit: "I don't know the answer to that."

This was a lesson, emphasised by Trevor Mallard, New Zealand's Education Minister, and endorsed by Mr Peacock, that "the quest for improvement in education never stops despite the yearning for stability". This is true even of "successful" systems: like Singapore, New Zealand sits near the top of international school performance tables.

Despite the common ground, however, importing reforms from elsewhere is not likely to be on Mr Peacock's agenda. "Changes have to recognise the context, the culture and the different stages of development in individual countries," he commented.

This was the case with sports development and school accountability measures in New South Wales, assessment and Maori education in New Zealand, and child protection policies in both Australia and New Zealand.

Mr Peacock said none the less that New Zealand's "assessment for learning" approaches and the way schools report pupil progress to parents was ahead of developments in Scotland. While he suggested that "we are catching up rapidly", he wanted his officials to "keep in close touch with these developments in New Zealand".

Scotland is, however, ahead of both Australia and New Zealand in having a clearer strategy on child protection. The stark three-year deadline issued recently by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, for education, social work and health authorities to improve their record or face reform drew admiring comment.

Craig Smith, chief social worker in New Zealand's department of child, youth and family, said that Scotland's child protection standards were a yardstick that was "internationally outstanding".

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