A chance to listen to the staffroom voice;Opinion

17th April 1998 at 01:00
The Secretary of State has put education at the top of his policy manifesto for the Scottish Parliament. In a speech in Glasgow last week he avoided using his boss's mantra "education, education, education". But his words amounted to the same profession of faith.

Donald Dewar even turned it into a commitment to spend money, although he did not say when or how much. "Our pledge will be to invest in education, but if standards do not progress, then we will not hesitate as a Government to intervene to make it (sic) happen."

Mr Dewar's minister of state is set to visit schools. That should not be a matter of comment when it concerns the minister for education, but there is an interesting subtext to Brian Wilson's prospective programme. He has been assiduous in meeting the education community through the many conferences he has addressed. But teachers in the setting of their own school are likely to be far franker about their worries, and the minister should also meet a wider cross-section of the profession.

The other striking aspect of his decision to go walkabout is that it suggests he is receiving confusing messages about the state of education. On Higher Still, for example, his advisers - the HMI and the programme development unit - will have told him that it will be all right on the night.

The advisers will have said teachers always react badly to the prospect of major change (the raising of the leaving age, Standard grade, etc) but cope well in the end. Specific difficulties, as with assessment of English, are being ironed out.

But such reassurance is not echoed by many practising teachers, some of whom Mr Wilson is bound to meet through Labour and other connections. Therefore the minister wants to visit "ordinary" schools which invite him, he says, rather than those presented to him as models. There is a suggestion here of a desire to go beyond and behind official briefings and to treat the inspectorate as less than all seeing.

Mr Wilson made his reputation in opposition as a politician with acute antennae, rapidly picking up vibes and exploiting them. But how can a minister continue to be alive to trends of opinion when bulging boxes of official papers and dependence on civil service advice conspire to keep him from the public? Or, in this case, from teachers in the staffroom and the pub.

Labour cannot afford to sacrifice its educational constituency. Yet it must proceed with its programme, which cannot be funded as teachers would like. Mr Wilson recently responded to parents worried about rural schools. What will he hear and do about the 5-14 programme and Higher Still?

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