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New course will be tough to charter

Whenever the public is asked about key issues in an election, education and health always come out near the top. It was, therefore, no surprise during the Scottish Parliament election to see that the BBCScotland poll of issues and the STV electorate opinion survey confirmed that new schools and hospitals remained priorities. Nor was it surprising that Labour made the establishment of Scottish education as "the best in the world" its chief election pledge.

Even if the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories were all a little modest in their rhetoric, they still had plenty to say on the topic, with the SNP's promise on class sizes fitting most closely the demands of the Educational Institute of Scotland which ran a highly visible poster campaign in April to get its message across.

Yet - and I write this in the last full week of the campaign - education has not really excited the debate that might have been expected or which is needed. Big words about education have not been matched by detailed examination of promises, or careful analysis of what is really required.

Education seems to have been relegated to that consensual, motherhood and apple pie compartment of politics in which it is assumed that everyone agrees on what tinkering needs to be done with a system which already works.

Such neglect is a pity. There are important matters which need ventilation in public so that later decisions can be better informed, and many of them relate to the fast-changing world in which we live.

For example, little has been said about the exam system, yet modern technology will allow some new approaches within a few years. Should we not upscale our ambitions and offer examinable courses worldwide by means of the internet? This would be a useful spin-off from establishing, first of all, an ability to offer our students examinations online at any time in any subject. The old idea of "diets", "cohorts" and rigid courses - as well as the burden of moving packages of scripts around at set times of year - could, and perhaps should, disappear for ever.

To range more widely, should we not also have looked forward to new types of schooling, discussed autonomy for schools in a broader curriculum, re-examined the place of local authorities and thought hard about student finance? And should we not have asked ourselves what type of education will be most relevant in a climate-challenged, globalised environment?

Indeed, we should have. But instead, the debate seems to have had difficulty in getting behind slogans. Yet, is the idea of being "the best in the world" not curiously irrelevant and old-fashioned when it is now clear that what an education system must do first of all is realise the potential of every young person? Surely ensuring the "best education service for each Scottish child" would have been a more worthy ambition ?

Of course, whatever the rhetoric, it will mean nothing unless it is backed up by delivery of what has been promised.

I was in a Dumfriesshire primary during the campaign where, with an excellent staff, there was still at least one class of more than 30 children, despite the assertions of all our former education ministers that class sizes were now well under control.

Whoever steps into that job over the next few weeks, from whatever party, will have a tough assignment. It is not only to implement whatever it is that they offered to the people, though that will be tough enough. It is also to bring into consideration all those things which did not feature in the campaign, and begin to chart a new course for Scottish education in a world that will be harder to understand than any of us yet realise.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator, and an SNP candidate in the election

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