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Specialist schools' close call

From specialist schools to scrapping student debt, Fiona MacLeod reports on education issues raised at the Scottish National Party's annual conference

A Scottish National Party bid to introduce non-selective specialist schools has hit a stumbling block after party members narrowly voted to amend the policy.

Delegates at the party's annual conference raised concerns that the policy would have a damaging effect on secondary schools in rural and island areas. They defeated a resolution from education spokeswoman Fiona Hyslop by 126 votes to 107 at the weekend. That resolution on specialist schools will now go back to the national committee for revision.

Critics warned that rural and island children, whose interests did not match their local school's specialism, would not be able to travel to other secondaries.

One speaker feared it might lead to teachers and resources being drawn to a specialist school, leaving corresponding departments in neighbouring schools to wither.

But Mrs Hyslop said the policy was not incompatible with a comprehensive, non-selective system: "We'll support every school pursuing a specialism, in sport, music, drama, vocational skills, science, languages, maths, or technology."

And she stressed the scheme aimed to engage disaffected children rather than limit their choices: "Pupils will not be expected to specialise earlier in terms of curriculum choice. An all-school approach, though, can provide a focus for interest."

The proposal was one of a raft of policies outlined in the party's education manifesto, which was published on Saturday. The manifesto is based on "five key education pillars":

* Early start, best start: concentrating on early years;

* International: Scotland becoming an international leader;

* Aspiration: challenging education for all;

* Egalitarian: education should be based on ability to learn, not on ability to pay; and

* Putting schools at the heart of the community.

Among other key policies which were backed unanimously was a motion to reduce class sizes in P1-P3 to 18.

However, the bid to support more nursery teachers raised concerns it might denigrate the role of nursery nurses. In the end, it was approved by the party, which had already announced its target to increase by 50 per cent the hours per week of free nursery education for three and four-year-olds - from the current 11 hours per week to 16 hours.

Early intervention was a key message, with Mrs Hyslop stressing the importance of basic literacy and numeracy in primary. She plans to encourage take-up in secondary of science and languages through a baccalaureate-style leaving exam.

The manifesto is critical of the current situation: "Too many children are stunted in development and education terms. The gap between the poorest performing 20 per cent of pupils and the rest is widening according to the HMIE report Missing Out."

It adds: "The lowest achieving 20 per cent are consistently flat-lining in performance with little prospect of change, 60 per cent middle-range achievers could be stretched more but need greater motivation and interest, while the top achievers (20 per cent) could reach even higher levels of success."

It says classes are still too large, indiscipline is a major problem and too few children reach expected levels in the three "R's".

The SNP paper also criticises implementation of the national teachers'

agreement: "Councils have spent more than pound;2 billion implementing the McCrone agreement without any way of detecting an improvement in attainment."

Another proposal which provoked controversy with delegates was a move to provide children in primary and secondary with more free time to pursue interests outside the curriculum. A review of the curriculum would find the necessary additional time. Mrs Hyslop sought to reassure concerned delegates by promising this time would be supervised.

She went on to criticise the burden of bureaucracy on teachers: "Teachers must be free to teach and we will provide them with more space, time and responsibility to exercise their skills in educating our young people."

Secondary teachers, particularly in science, would be encouraged to take secondments in industry for at least six-month periods while those already in industry would be encouraged to enter teaching.

Putting vocational education on a par with academic studies was another key aim.

Ms Hyslop said: "We will encourage pupils who want to, to pursue vocational education opportunities in S3 and S4."

The SNP also promised free school meals, two hours a week of PE, and a week of outdoor education for P1-P3.

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