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Line up for your electoral bromide;Opinion

THIS YEAR marks the 10th anniversary of the truly remarkable reforms of the Labour government of David Lange in New Zealand - a young, small, energetic country with a free-market economy.

Previously an egalitarian tradition had favoured a network of community coeducational schools under regional boards. Tomorrow's Schools in 1989 abolished this structure, brought in a board of trustees for each school and gave it powers undreamt of by its Scottish counterparts. Heads and trustees were given responsibility for clear detailed objectives and full accountability to parents. They choose their own staff and set conditions of service. They can request bulk (direct grant) funding, on which moneys the school benefits from interest.

Today about a third of schools have taken the bulk funding route. Heads and trustees wax enthusiastic about it. But bulk funding remains controversial among the teaching profession. This is election year, too, - and there is currently debate as to whether the government should take pressure off individual boards of trustees and go national with bulk funding.

Pretty radical stuff, of course, in the Scottish context. In these frenetic campaigning days a collection of strategically designed education policy documents of terrifying sameness has been launched by Scotland's three centre left parties. Line up here for your electoral bromide. You can paint the classroom walls any colour as long as they're pink.

Who would claim from perusing these tracts for our times, these pedestrian examples of the vision thing, that they are really all Scottish education needs for the new parliament, the new millennium? Who would guess that Scotland's education system does actually have a few fairly structural problems - problems that might conceivably need a bit more than voter-wooing electoral largesse to allow our country to begin to compete on the world stage?

There seems to be a conspiracy of silence among the centre-left parties - or perhaps it's an unwillingness or inability to comprehend just where we are at. Of course, our own Inspectorate's recent reports together with depressing conclusions on world comparisons from the Organisation for Economic Co ordination and Development and other international organisations are not exactly sexy or vote-winning. But these are reports that indicate at best mediocrity, and at worst a low position on world charts.

There is still complacency around. We do not take seriously enough the fact that schools with similar characteristics produce very different results for their pupils. As a national newspaper said recently, Scotland is fast being left behind by the multilingual, multi-skilled youth of continental Europe.

The easy cure-all for the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Nationalists is the universal desire to cast cash around. The parties' prospective policy documents show insignificant differences other than exactly where the flowing bounty is to be directed: computers, smaller classes, better e-mail facilities, classroom aides, books, nursery places.

These things are of course devoutly to be wished. But it is missing the point to assume that showering pupils with everything money can buy will alone and necessarily ensure high levels of literacy, numeracy, a culture of learning, a spirit of enterprise and confidence in Scotland's young.

There is one political nod in the direction of radical reform. The new-style Conservatives who have little to lose and much to gain are enjoying themselves with their proposal to abolish 32 education authorities and devolve control and resource to boards consisting of parents, teachers and councillors.

The new parliament will have the opportunity to look outwards and to eschew insularity. Perhaps careful analysis of what other countries actually do and what is successful might bring some enriching surprises.

Scotland Opinion H17 TESJapril 23J 1999 david smith 'There are many examples of attainment targets which are totally unrealistic. This merely sets up schools to fail and damages teacher morale'

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