A need for change that goes beyond money;Opinion

15th March 1996 at 00:00
The system is still reeling from recent events. The new councils tumbled over each other last week to finalise their lists of spending cuts before the budget-day deadline. The backwash from the massive protest march and rally in Edinburgh was still affecting government, with more money being found to limit council tax rises if not to tackle the problems faced by schools as they contemplate devolved management in a cold climate.

The argument between local and central government has obscured initiatives where money is not at the heart of the matter. In the tail-end of an SNP-inspired parliamentary debate about education, Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, announced a task force to examine underperforming schools. There is no indication that any schools north of the border will be branded as "failing" and entrusted to inspectors to run, but it will be interesting to see how open the Scottish Office is in revealing where the task force pitches camp.

It is hard to discern from the almost universally favourable reports by HMIs on individual schools that some are deemed to be underperforming, and use of value-added criteria to make credible the comparison of examination results is still regarded with caution by the Scottish Office.

Teachers will need more details about the task force's intended operation before reaching a judgment. But on the secondary front they will have noted a new determination by the Government to reinspire confidence in the Higher Still plans. Over recent months the critics have had a field day, picking holes in the subject-by-subject consultation documents, decrying the likely timetabling arrangements, deploring the lack of resources and pronouncing that even with the year's delay to 1998 the whole project is bound to run aground.

Concern about assessment of the new courses is to be eased by national test materials which teachers can dip into as they choose. The hope is that schools will feel neither that they are being left entirely to their own devices in drawing up and assessing courses, nor that they are being spoonfed. In other words there will be a better balance than during the run-in of Standard grade when do-it-yourself curriculum building was replaced by central intervention following a two-year dispute.

Renaming the new courses to avoid confusion with Standard grade is another small gesture towards common sense. The point is not that teacher worries will be allayed by modest Government initiatives. But there is evidence that a new attempt is being made to convince teachers and the public that reform should not be further delayed. Each year's SCE results with their batch of poor Higher candidates show the urgent need.

Concentration on Higher Still does, however, imperil the introduction of the 5-14 programme in secondary schools. Progress has been slow, especially in testing of pupil levels, a reflection of continuing distaste for national testing which has spread from primary to secondary. The Government wants pressure applied to ensure that 5-14 does not become 5-12 and that the problems of S1 and S2 courses, the least satisfactory years of school education, are tackled within the framework laid down.

Totting up and tut-tutting about the small percentage of secondary pupils given national tests may not be the best way forward. But the problems of the "fresh start" in S1 and S2 are still best looked at in the context of a programme that is intended to make progress continuous from primary to secondary.

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