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The great debate kicks off

THE national debate on school education over the next 10 years began on Wednesday with an admission from Cathy Jamieson, Minister for Education and Young People, that government should not constantly heap new demands on schools.

Ms Jamieson's statement in the Scottish Parliament followed two announcements earlier in the week that will impact on schools. On Monday, she launched the revised early years assessment guide (page one) and on Tuesday, Mike Watson, Sports Minister, launched the final version of the physical education and sport in schools programme (page four).

Local authorities estimate there are currently around 55 initiatives in education that demand attention.

Ms Jamieson, in launching the national debate, sought to allay fears about overload. "What we must not do is simply add on more and more things that schools ought to deliver and expect that this will add up to an improved education," she said. "We must avoid the temptation to constantly launch new initiatives to respond to problems or opportunities that we see in schools."

She argued that a period of stability in schools had begun and that a strategic approach, guided by what comes out of the debate, would allow a clear focus on what really works for young people.

Ms Jamieson said: "I often hear, when I am out in schools, the plea from the heart for a period of stability. And I know that many parents and pupils themselves worry about the pace of change. So I do want to give reassurance. This is not about another upheaval over the next couple of years."

But it was important to ask what school education was for, what it should cover and how it should be delivered and it was not a narrow consultation exercise. "We need to ask what sort of places our schools should be in the 21st century," Ms Jamieson said.

She acknowledged that young people learn in different settings and urged clubs and organisations to respond.

Despite the open-ended consultation, ministers will not shift from three principles: any future system must emphasise inclusion and equality; remain a public service; and develop links between schools and communities, integrating children's services across departments.

Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, encouraged all teachers to contribute and welcomed the inclusive approach by ministers. "Scotland's system of comprehensive schooling works very well and the EIS remains firmly committed to the comprehensive principle," Mr Smith said. Changes should be evolutionary.

But Mike Russell, the SNP's education spokesman, labelled the debate a "diversionary tactic" to avoid answering questions on the Executive's own policies. His party would publish its new policies in April as a contribution.

"We will be suggesting solutions, not just posing problems," Mr Russell said.

The Executive is sending a briefing pack to schools and authorities and full details appear on its website. Suggestions for improvements should be returned by July 12 with a draft action plan produced in the autumn. A national strategy will be launched early next year.

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