A bland and impoverished Bill;Opinion

17th December 1999 at 00:00
POOR BELEAGUERED teachers. With the dying of the decade comes yet another gloomy report for Scots education . . . this time on literacy attainment for eight-14 year olds. The question poses itself, what's wrong? And what should our Scottish Parliament be doing about it in 2000?

Is the problem down to the Cinderella years - S1S2? Is the inspectorate the villain? Or the training colleges? Are several generations of children the victims of a desperate failed fashion in so-called child-centred education? Is Higher Still an expensive exercise in bureaucracy gone mad?

Judging by the bland and impoverished flavour of the current Scottish education Bill, already pushed from the priority slot by what really seems to matter these days, anti-foxhunting of all things, the education vision of Sam Galbraith, our present Scottish minister, seems to be in sticking plaster mode.

In this, sadly, he's no different to predecessors Liddell and Wilson.

But perhaps we are seeing Government action of a kind. Entrenched interests in Scottish education have cried wolf often enough.

Perhaps this time they do have something to feel threatened by - the latest Holyrood proposals to raise standards by privatising education. That's the last resort in Islington, too.

Some might say come back Michael Forsyth, all is forgiven.

For this is no hare-brained right-wing vote-catch to be sneered at and dismissed. On the contrary, it is high on the discussion agenda of the Executive's recently created policy group, the Scottish Forum for Modern Government.

Of course there is a place for finance partnerships and privatised services in education, but our Government is now fiddling round the edges.

Scotland needs a total rethink. We need the kind of ground-up approach which many had high hopes that this Government might have shown already.

Does anyone out there remember the Channel Four 1991 Commission on Education and its report Every Child in Britain?

Its members included heavyweights from right and left - Sig Prais, former adviser to Conservative governments, Professor A H Halsey who did the same for the Labour party, Professor Alan Smithers, who uncovered the despair of many teachers.

This commission, like many since, has sunk without trace. But it was groundbreaking in what it attempted. It set out to look at whether the United Kingdom has something to learn. It looked abroad, and in its own words was "frightened by what it found".

The commission also took a busload of pupils and parents from Barking and Dagenham to Hoorn technical and vocational school north of Amsterdam.

Parents and pupils were amazed at the high standards they found, particularly among the lower half of the ability range. They came home unanimously approving the methodology and ethos which created such results, and the proposals from the commission which followed.

These proposals proved to be revolutionary in the extreme. In its own words, the commission's 1991 conclusions had the potential to turn English (sic) educational thinking on its head - or around 180 degrees.

These same conclusions would seem to have relevance to Scotland's case nine years on, and in particular to the cultural conditioning here which still gives unequal status to divergent types of learning.

I intend in my next article to revisit the conclusions of Every Child in Britain. I shall try to suggest that if Scotland truly wants to compete with Europeans in providing the best possible education for every single child, its policy makers should lift their heads from the consideration of provincial minutiae, go to Europe, learn from what they find and bring home some creative thinking.

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