All governments make education a rhetorical priority. On the evidence of the recently published White Paper this Government's determination should not be underestimated. Indeed considerable political capital has been invested. Results will be sought.
At the White Paper's heart is a commitment to the educational attainment of every pupil, modernising a system around social inclusion and raising achievement. There are, of course, pragmatic and economic reasons for this approach. There is no longer a market-place for large numbers of unskilled workers.
Detailed consultation will provide an opportunity to debate the respective roles and powers relating to policy-making among the new parliament, the local authorities and other interested professional and parent bodies.
The end point of this debate should be a system where all lines of accountability have been clarified. At present there is a lack of clarity not least as a consequence of the consumerist policies of the 1980s and early 1990s. Local authorities remain the employers of teachers and the bodies with prime responsibility for the curriculum. School boards and devolved school management were introduced to weaken such control and encourage diversity. What resulted, however, was increased centralisation. This has resulted in utter confusion with regard to policy-making.
The determination of the White Paper is reflected in an admirable enthusiasm for clarity of expectation and rigorous scrutiny of outcome. It is therefore disappointing that there is still an unhealthy preoccupation with prescription of means. This is particularly pronounced in the chapter on the curriculum. After an encouraging start this is merely a description of the current curriculum with a promise of more of the same. Teachers are told of regular implementation failures but not policy failures. It is surely worth considering that recent disappointments such as modern languages teaching, 5-14 assessment and environmental studies, for example, may in part be the result of poor advice.
This process reached its high point with the highly centralised approach of Higher Still. There remains a danger that further implementation failure awaits as a consequence of over-complexity.
The quality initiative in Scottish schools has many admirable features and has done much to encourage effective performance management. Its status is, however, reduced if the focus is on whether particular advice has been followed, not whether a school or an education authority is effective. Sound bites about the size of targets are a good example.
Targets can help but what matters is the effectiveness and rigour of the action to raise standards. That should be the sole measure for evaluation rather than adherence to a particular methodology.
An alternative model is available within the White Paper with the praise of early intervention schemes. This process of learning from diversity can be taken further with the potentially radical prospect of community schools. It will be interesting to learn of the variety and creativity which will emerge from this initiative.
In an encouraging climate of no excuses on the basis of socio-economic status the emphasis on core skills is to be commended. This could be complemented by allowing schools greater freedom to reflect more accurately the communities they serve.
The future should seek to build on the potential of new community schools. There will be a future for services which put children at the heart of planning. There is scope for improving provision by breaking down barriers among education, social work, health and youth and community. There is immense scope to improve the quality of care and education.
It is also heartening to note the recognition that devolved school management is not just about resources but about the decision-making that lies behind these resources. There should be scope to increase devolved budgets but also to ensure that this is accompanied by clear and challenging accountability.
Increasing devolved management need not weaken the local authority's role, merely ensure concentration on clarity of expectation and scrutiny of outcome. It is essential that local authorities challenge and support schools, and headteachers are reminded that they are not self-employed. Accountability must be to the whole community.
Local authorities themselves must be subject to external scrutiny in line with the principles of best value. The debate should centre on whether it is appropriate for HMI to fulfil this role, particularly if its policy-making dominance continues.
It would appear that some of the new mainland authorities have been more effective than others. It would also appear that there is no correlation between effectiveness and size. Indeed smaller authorities require a more challenging and open-minded approach.
The current degree of central control by the Scottish Office is unhealthy. More important it is incompatible with the project to democratise Scotland. Let us therefore take the opportunity that education, as a political priority, provides. Let us debate the policy-making framework and argue to separate quality assurance and policy-making. Let us make sure that scrutiny is based on public not professional considerations and let diversity be encouraged.
The emphasis should be on children first, quality service delivery and a firm commitment to strategic aims expressed in community plans. Only local government can provide the necessary linkage among services and with the community, thus enabling the continuing development of an education service of the highest quality.