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Editorial: Working with the grain on raising standards

The message from Victoria Quay, as we exclusively revealed last week, is that compulsory testing in S1 and S2 is to be abandoned. It was an anomaly and can therefore be ditched by the new Government without affecting the need for the 5-14 guidelines to be more widely applied in secondary schools. Indeed, the resentment caused by the previous government's commitment to testing had made secondary teachers even more reluctant than before to get to grips with 5-14.

Because secondary tests were intended to send a political signal, they made no sense educationally. The Conservatives' aim was to demonstrate belief in rigour. They got only rigor mortis for themselves. In primaries children are tested as they move from one level to the next. In secondary there were to have been testing seasons for all. The difference between the two sectors would have been emphasised instead of blurred, as was the original intention of the 5-14 programme.

So there is educational as well as political sense in removing the compulsory element. Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, cannot be accused of merely dismantling a Conservative policy to gain easy assent from teachers.

The Inspectorate in Scotland wants to see the good become better. South of the border there is a problem in finding enough that can be called good.The distinction leads to a different political approach. David Blunkett as Education Secretary and the Office for Standards in Education as executors of change wield the stick as well as offering some carrots. Mr Wilson has not yet felt the need to reveal whether he carries a stick at all. For him the priority is to win a measure of support from teachers and make progress from there.

The danger is complacency. The Government cannot afford to leave the impression that a more relaxed regime is one which tolerates second best. School development plans, self-audits and performance indicators are intended to ensure that institutions strive for the best even without the spur of an imminent inspection or the prospect of national tests being used to create yet more leagues of achievement.

But there remains a problem of perception. To counter Conservative ideology and the spread of unwanted reforms from the south, Scottish educational interests reassured one another that things were pretty good here. That was true only up to a point. The recent international statistics about performance in maths and sciences contained disturbing messages about Scottish standards in comparison not only with those on the Pacific Rim but even those in England.

In heeding teachers' concerns the new Government shows a desire to work with the grain. Mr Wilson's announcement this week confined itself to testing and to a reaffirmation of level F for abler pupils, but before long he must consider the wider question of standards. Raising standards remains the aim and it would be unfortunate if a relaxation of the testing regime were regarded as in any way undermining that. The only change which he intends is to the way of monitoring progress on standards, and that needs early emphasis.

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