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Keeping all the plates in the air

Neil Munro reports on the Scottish Executive's response to the national debate on education

MINISTERS have produced a complex set of far-reaching and interlocking measures in their response to the national debate on education.

The Scottish Executive has tried to balance what it believes is the broad consensus to have emerged - that schools are on the right track - against accusations that it is taking steps to guard against charges of complacency.

Few of the measures presented to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday by Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, are new, apart from the announcement of the curriculum and assessment reviews. Most of the initiatives unveiled this week are in prospect or already started (such as the teachers'

agreement), while others will take four years or more to achieve.

They range from pre-school to teacher training, from school education to lifelong learning and from pupils to teachers.

The key preoccupations which emerged from the debate were the overloaded curriculum, excessive assessment, teacher workload and under-stimulated pupils. The Executive has responded across a broad front.

The purpose of the curriculum review will be to increase pupil choice, beginning with what the Executive admits is "the current overload" in the 5-14 programme. It pledges to make the curriculum more "flexible" than ministers have hitherto suggested - although the extent of this is not made clear other than to develop the curriculum around "a well balanced core" and break down subject barriers.

This will involve more opportunities for learning out of school, something pupils said they wan-ted during the consultation, such as summer schools and specialist teaching.

Pupils will be able to gain credit for community and voluntary work in third and fourth years. They will also have more enterprise education and vocational options in the curriculum, as foreshadowed in December's report on enterprise education, Determined to Succeed. These changes will be piloted over the next two years.

The curriculum review will start next year and take until 2007, covering pre-school, primary and secondary. It will include the content as well as the principles.

The response on assessment takes an unexpectedly frank approach to current failings. It acknowledges that schools should "move away from assessment which simply grades pupils at each stage to assessment which helps pupils understand how they can improve and supports their learning".

The coming year will see a rethink of the relationship between Standard grade and the new Higher Still National Qualifications, as more schools opt to introduce Standard grade courses in S2 instead of S3 and NQs in S4.

But there will also be moves to simplify the assessment process "to reduce the number of, and amount of time spent on, tests and exams". One option will be to have one school leaving exam instead of one every year from S4, a move which will reduce burdens on the qualifications system as well as on teachers and pupils.

Other learning and teaching measures in the package include a three-year piloting of alternative structures to the school day, using volunteer schools and beginning in 2005.

The Executive has renewed its commitment to personal learning plans to record achievements in school and to concentrate the inspection process on authorities and schools "which fail to demonstrate improvement for pupils" (beginning in August for primaries and January 2004 for secondaries).

It has pledged to monitor the effectiveness of all its measures and how they relate to the national priorities for education, under which authorities are legally bound to pursue "continuous improvement".

It plans to set out where schools are in terms of the five priorities this year and publish a progress report in 2006. The priorities themselves will be reviewed to set key targets from 2005 onwards.

Ms Jamieson made clear in a media briefing that she may step in and ask the Parliament for "wider powers" if authorities fail to meet their targets.

Successful authorities and schools "delivering excellent outcomes" will be given more freedom to spend their money.

Leader, page 22

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