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New minister takes his ear into schools

THE Scottish Executive signalled this week that it was changing its ways and bowing to criticism that educational policy has in the past been excessively prescriptive.

Jack McConnell, the Education Minister, announced on Monday that he was setting five national priority areas for education, but said that it would be up to schools and education authorities to work out how they are implemented and achieved. The priorities, which will have legal backing as part of the new education Act, are considerably slimmed down from the initial complex and widely criticised version launched in March.

"We want to focus on outcomes not on the detail of inputs and structures," Mr McConnell said. "We have therefore tried to set out limited priorities which are not so ambitious that they become ludicrous. Every area of Scotland is different, every school is different, I think probably every classroom is different."

The significant change in emphasis has been on the drawing board for some time and was finally confirmed publicly in the last speech drafted for Donald Dewar, the late First Minister, who had planned to speak at the recent TES ScotlandEdinburgh Council conference. The speech declared: "We cannot rely on the old-fashioned approach of introducing central initiatives regardless of the degree of understanding and consent."

The change was fulsomely welcomed by Keir Bloomer, president of the Association of Directors of Education and one of the most persistent critics of prescriptive national initiatives. Mr Bloomer said the new priorities, which take a broad academic, personal and social perspective of education, reflected the outcome of a genuine consultation which had called for fewer, more manageable priorities.

"You have opened the door to empowering the profession to use their creativity and imagination to secure the objectives you have set down," Mr Bloomer told Mr McConnell, who was visiting Lornshill Academy in Alloa where he taught maths from 1983-92.

Mr Bloomer, who is director of education in Clackmannanshire but has just been appointed chief executive, said Mr McConnell had signalled "the death of the destructive compliance agenda which has been so damaging to Scottish education over the last 20 years".

The priorities, which are required by the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act, will have to be approved by Parliament. They are intended to form the legal basis of annual "improvement objectives" which will have to be drawn up by authorities and which in turn will influence school development plans. The initial priorities (see panel) will b in place for between three and five years before being reviewed.

The Executive sees its priorities effectively as a national development plan for education which attempts to strike a bargain with the profession. In return for asking schools to raise their game, ministers accept that "if these goals are to be achieved, priority needs to be given to supporting teachers and enhancing school environments".

This will include better school buildings, the provision of IT, strengthening classroom management skills and tackling disruption. The necessity for the Executive to fulfil its part of the bargain, including the provision of resources and support for schools, has already been flagged up by the Educational Institute of Scotland and the SNP.

But Ronnie Smith, the EIS's general secretary, added his voice to the acclaim which greeted the announcement of greater flexibility for schools to meet goals that were "reasonably achievable". Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, said it was "a step in the right direction".

Having now set his priorities, Mr McConnell presented himself as the latest in a long line of "listening ministers". He intends to meet groups of teachers in different parts of Scotland once a month between now and next summer, reflecting his view that "the relationship between the pupil and teacher is critical to our success".

But he said that dialogue would be a two-way process and he expected teachers to listen to what he had to say.


* Achievement and attainment aims "to raise standards of educational attainment for all in schools, especially in the core skills of

literacy and numeracy, and to achieve better levels of national measures of achievement including examination results".

* Framework for learning is "to support and develop the skills of teachers, the self-discipline of pupils and to enhance school environments so that they are conducive to teaching and learning".

* Inclusion and equality will "help every pupil benefit from education, with particular regard paid to pupils with disabilities and special educational needs, and to Gaelic and other lesser used languages".

* Values and citizenship encourages "work with parents to teach pupils respect for self and one another . . . and to teach

them the duties and responsibilities of citizenship".

* Learning for life strives "to equip pupils with the foundation skills, attitudes and expectations necessary to prosper in a changing society and to encourage creativity and ambition".

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