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National priorities 'aren't set in stone'

Neil Munro reports from the annual conference of the Association of Educational Advisers in Scotland

THE new national priorities for education to be set by the Scottish Executive will not be "prescriptive or handed down in tablets of stone", the Children and Education Minister has promised.

Speaking to advisers at their annual conference in Bellshill, Sam Galbraith signalled that consultation would begin shortly on the "framework for improvement" schools, education authorities and ministers will be expected to deliver. Views will be invited on three issues: What really matters in Scottish education?

How can we measure whether it is happening?

How can we make the system work together effectively?

Mr Galbraith said there was "a great dearth of measurements in Scottish education by which we can judge what is happening", as he revisited a favourite theme by pointing out that Health Service data told him the mortality rate of every surgeon in Scotland. "There's accountability for you," he remarked.

He conceded, however, that what matters is "the right outcomes, not making sure everyone does the same thing".

During later exchanges Mr Galbraith resisted a suggestion from Laurie O'Donnell, a development officer in Dundee, that it was as important to get the process of learning right as it was to measure the effectiveness of outcomes.

"You have got to start somewhere. How do you know how effective the process is until you measure what is coming out?"

He recognised that some of the new national priorities will not be susceptible to quantitative measurement such as exam results. "For instance, we want our young people to show initiative and enterprise; we want them to be active citizens. Schools make a difference in these areas, but I can think of no simple numerical indicator to tell us how they areperforming - at least not yet."

Any quality indicators which eventually emerge will have to be "firmly based on evidence and rigorous assessment of that evidence if they are to command respect and promote confidence".

Mr Galbraith gave a preliminary indication of some of the elements he wants to see, although so far these amount to little more than the existing core skills in literacy and numeracy, information and communications technology, problem solving and critical thinking, and working with others. He said he was happy to consider other suggestions.

Despite an admission by ministers that they are unhappy with the exclusive reliance on exam data to judge schools, Mr Galbraith made it clear there would be no departure from the target-setting agenda. Of particular importance were the aims to have 94 per cent of fourth-year pupils achieving a Standard grade in English and maths (currently 93 per cent) and for at least 23 per cent of pupils to emerge with three or more Higher passes (currently 20 per cent).

It is also expected that the national priorities will have to take account of the lesser known targets for "social justice" set out last November by Donald Dewar, the First Minister, and Wendy Alexander, the Communities Minister. These include raising the number of 16-19s in education, training and employment, improving levels of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, and ensuring all children in care have qualifications in English and maths.

Tackled on the pace of change in schools, Mr Galbraith agreed it was time to call a halt to curricular upheaval, although there were still problems with 5 14 and particularly the first two years of secondary. But that did not mean schools had to "fossilise".

Change can be refreshing, he added, suggesting that sabbaticals might reinvigorate careers.

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