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National debate kicks off early

John Cairney reports on how some players see the big issues shaping up

FEE-PAYING and denominational schools are two of the "big questions" that need to be addressed in the national debate on Scottish education, according to at least one expert.

A seminar in a portable hut at the first National Education Show for Scotland (NESS) in the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow was the unlikely setting for a preview of the debate. In the discussions that ensued, the issues were accorded better ventilation than the venue.

Laurie O'Donnell, head of future learning at Learning and Teaching Scotland, told the seminar that the Scottish Executive and Parliament should look at "the whole picture" when making decisions about the next 10 years.

"It is not for me to say what the big issues are, but there are clearly some that have been controversial for a long time in Scotland. The fact is that there are fee-paying, independent and denominational schools and legitimate questions that should be asked," Mr O'Donnell said.

The national debate, due to be launched by the Executive later this month and to be concluded by the end of June, must also address the balance between knowledge and skills in the curriculum. Jeremy Morris, acting assistant head at Monifieth High, said that secondary teachers are torn between two "directives".

They were expected to incorporate new ways of teaching, new technology and thinking skills, but, Mr Morris said, "the main driving force of the Executive is attainment, and that attainment is measured in exam results. There is a body of knowledge that teachers feel obliged to get through, therefore all other innovations are seen as peripheral to the main job."

Similar constraints exist in the primary school, according to Sonia Kordiak, secretary of Midlothian local association of the Educational Institute of Scotland. "If primary schools are to deliver the aspects of values and citizenship which are expected of them, they are going to need more time to do that, and they cannot be constrained by 5-14 attainment targets and the introduction of any kind of national testing."

Sandy Fowler, the union's national president, said future structures must include a greater emphasis on "properly planned and funded research to inform education policy". This could be achieved by controlling workload and enhancing continuing professional development.

Stewart Campbell, integration and staff development manager with West Lothian, told The TES Scotland that a "clear theme" in the debate must be about bringing people together to promote continuing professional development, particularly in devising the chartered teacher framework.

"This partnership must include local authorities and higher education institutions as equals and must recognise and preserve the balance between academic input and work-placed professional assessment," Mr Campbell said. "If either of these is missing whatever emerges will be degraded."

John Ferguson, a freelance education consultant specialising in languages, made a plea for the national debate to recognise that Scotland is a multilingual and multicultural country.

"With technology and with the proposed Scottish schools digital network we would be able to link schools and share resources," Mr Ferguson said. "There is a lot of money being invested in Gaelic, but no money going into other languages such as Urdu, Punjabi and Chinese. We are not doing enough for them."

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