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Peacock promises a dash of local colour in the Bill

EDUCATION authorities may be given more freedom to pursue their own policies once the Education Bill is passed, Peter Peacock said this week.

The Deputy Minister for Children and Education was speaking in Lerwick at the start of a series of ministerial roadshows on the legislation. He drew an audience of more than 60 for a wide-ranging question and answer session.

Mr Peacock said more flexibility would be possible under proposals for inspecting education authorities, which will be required to draw up local improvement plans and have quality assurance arrangements in place.

These initiatives, he added, would ensure there was a commitment to the "culture of continuous improvement" which was at the heart of the Bill.

But Mr Peacock said any departure from national policy or practice would only be allowed if a convincing case was made for it.

He was responding to a question from Douglas Forrest, head of Happyhansel primary, Walls, who complained about the time involved in collecting figures for the Scottish Office on attendance which he said was not an issue in many rural areas.

Mr Forrest, Shetland president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said his time would be better spent on dealing with real issues affecting his school.

Mr Peacock insisted that pupil absenteeism was a real problem in many areas, although perhaps not in Shetland. But he acknowledged the inappropriateness of applying the same policies irrespective of local circumstances.

He cited his experience as a Highland councillor at the time when the previous government was forcing authorities to put school meals out to competitive tender and sell off teachers' houses.

Despite continuing discontent in the profession, Mr Peacock repeated the Scottish Executive's mantra of working along with teachers to improve their standing and enhance standards. He condemned "teacher-bashing" in certain sections of the media and said they should focus on what he called Peacock's five Ps - "pupils, parents, professionals and politicians working in partnership".

The minister also appealed for teachers to engage in discussion on new ways of thinking and working in a more relaxed way without feeling threatened. The impact of IT on teaching was a particular issue requiring searching debate.

Evidence emerged at the Shetland meeting of fresh thinking within the Executive on how quality in the system is measured. Geoff Huggins, an influential aide to the education ministers who is in charge of the Education Bill's progress, said there had to be a wider quality agenda which moved away from "trite comparisons" between what was easily measurable to include areas such as methods of learning, ways of working and personal skills as well as qualifications.

In reply to a question, Mr Peacock acknowledged that emotional intelligence and social interaction should be on the same footing as setting targets and raising attainment.

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