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Pressured culture calls for support

In terms of international comparisons, Scotland is unusual in the extent to which most families from across the social spectrum choose our public education system. Many Scottish parents continue to show their confidence in the system. That is something that we should value and protect, rather than take for granted.

But recently, I have become concerned about the disconnect between our laudable ambitions to establish excellence in the educational experiences we offer young people and the operational realities.

We have too many priorities and not enough resources or structural integrity to match our broad-based ambitions for accountability, equity and excellence. Uncosted political priorities have been voted through on the naive assumption that the system has capacity to absorb them without diluting or detracting from other initiatives.

I believe there are few, if any, villains in the system. Most administrators, teachers and politicians have the best interests of children at heart. Yet our education service is, within its rather traditional structure and limited resources, struggling to look holistically at the needs of all children and do justice to them in relation to attainment and wider achievement.

Our efforts to offset disadvantage, promote excellence and develop capacities appropriate to the new millennium are undermined by diminishing resources and the tendency of politicians to reassure the electorate that significant budget cuts represent some form of efficiency measure.

Dedicated staff find it harder and harder to balance competing commitments and make the tougher choices needed to operate with the resources available. The reality is that schools are operating with fewer staff whose individual remits are increased to meet increasingly diverse demands.

Their overall effectiveness is diminished by this growing remit but also by the emphasis on performance reporting. Thus, presentation is eclipsing substance and morale is falling at about the same rate as stress levels are rising.

Virtually all the professionals I meet readily acknowledge the work that has been done in drawing up a strategic vision for Scottish education. But they also express concern that the declining resource base and absence of meaningful debate on the planning, sequencing and restructuring needed threaten to undermine this vision. We may well have identified what we want to achieve but are unlikely to be successful unless and until we are more willing to debate how to secure meaningful change.

We should acknowledge that we have signed up for a marathon, not a sprint, and must therefore support colleagues on the journey by setting up a culture and climate that excites rather than exhausts. I fear we are trying to do too much, too quickly, ignoring the financial reality we face.

In addition, those who have a political responsibility to account for the system are impatient for evidence of success. If we genuinely want schools to be ambitious and strive for excellence, then we need to find ways of sustaining the educational community over this period of change. Michael Fullan's observation that "culture eats strategy for breakfast" seems apposite.

School staff are swamped by the not-very-orderly queue of competing priorities, each being driven by individuals who feel they need to be assertive, in order to avoid their particular concern being crowded out by the competition. The tension and anxiety this generates is heightened by an accreditation system which, as yet, does not reconcile these competing claims.

It is all very well - indeed even helpful - to highlight those outstanding exceptions who appear to be capable of performing at Olympic level every day. But if we acknowledge that we are looking for systemic change, then we need to retain our ambition, but organise and plan on the basis of what can reasonably be achieved - without asking people to risk their health, relationships or personal well-being.

There is now growing evidence that the pressures to demonstrate improvement are pushing local authorities and individual schools to the point where the external perception becomes more important than the functional reality.

In my experience, the outcomes of new initiatives can be surprising, even counter-productive. Thus, increasing statistical tracking of young people not in employment, education or training (Neets) within existing resources can become an end in itself: the clientele who are the focus of this concern lose out, because some of the staffing resource that used to support them is diverted to accounting for and reporting on the provision.

If we intend to continue to hold headteachers to account - and I think we must - then we should debate how they might secure a much higher proportion of their uncommitted budget than the present 1 per cent or so. Equally, they have a right to expect to control more of their own appointments, rather than absorbing transfers within the authority and then being held to account for their performance.

We need to balance the somewhat bloated system of challenge and accountability with an equally robust system of support. We have moved beyond the point where it would be good to talk. It is now absolutely critical that we do, and the Scottish Government could do worse than revisit the notion of a national debate on education. Having agreed the what, we now need to debate and plan the how, and root that debate in the financial reality we face over the next few years.

Mike McCabe is former director of education in South Ayrshire.

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