A talking shop too far

10th November 2000 at 00:00
If local democracy hasn't worked for education why should a national convention, says Fred Forrester.

A BEMUSED delegate to the recent "public debate" on the need for a National Education Convention for Scotland felt he had stumbled into a meeting of a closed circle of education professionals.

He was surprised that the chairperson used the first names of so many of those present when calling on them to speak. As a practising architect and a co opted member of a school board, he felt that he ought to contribute to the discussion, but he found it offputting that so many of those present knew each other in other contexts.

The Scottish educational establishment consists of a very limited number of people, perhaps two or three hundred, meeting regularly and having similar backgrounds and sharing many of the same educational philosophies. This background may be counter-

productive, especially where a meeting has been called to discuss a potentially radical idea.

Such was the case with the Scottish Civic Forum's conference on whether there is a need for an education convention in this country. The idea came from Ireland, where a one-off national convention was called in 1993 in the wake of a critical survey of Irish education by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Opinion leaders arranged the convention, held outside the normal democratic structure and extending over several days and covered intensively by the Irish media.

In reporting to the Edinburgh meeting on the Irish experience, Professor John Fairley evinced some scepticism. Although both Irish education and Scottish education suffered from centralising tendencies, both he and many of those attending believed that Scottish education was under more democratic control and that Scottish educational problems could be addressed, at least partly, through the Parliament and education authorities. However, the meeting heard serious concerns about the extent to which educational debate in Scotland reaches the broad mass of opinion.

Popular involvement was limited to high-profile local questions such as closures or school transport. Parental involvement in schools was associated with dissatisfaction rather than with positive input. Turnout in the 1999 election to the Scottish Parliament had been disappointingly low and in local council elections was derisory in many areas. There was too little debate on the values which underlie education.

Some of those present felt that the system was designed implicitly to preserve the social status quo. They were prepared to contemplate an innovation such as a convention, although there was little support for a one-off event sponsored by the Government, whic was the Irish model.

A starting point should be recognition of just how extraordinarily centralised the Scottish system is. Policy decisions are taken by the Executive, advised by the Inspectorate and various quangos. Although the 32 education authorities have a local democratic mandate, they are generally unwilling to implement distinctive local policies. On the whole, they believe their duty is to administer the national system in accordance with principles which are assumed to be part of a national consensus.

Where a director of education wishes to pursue educational ideas, they will typically do this within a national quango or advisory body or at meetings of the Association of Directors of Education. The 12 former regional councils were far more innovative. One thinks of delegated management of resources in Strathclyde and social strategy in Lothian. Of course there are exceptions but these only serve to prove the rule.

So, if councillors, officials and voters are unwilling to make fuller use of the local democratic machinery which already exists, what is the case for saying that democracy has failed and that a national convention should be set up to stimulate educational debate and action? As one union leader observed, a convention could be a thoroughly marginalised body, whether it met for a day or was in continuous session.

We do not need yet another body to be consulted by the Executive. To give one example only, 101 bodies responded to the consultation on the Riddell report. If we are thinking of an "umbrella" body representing stakeholders, then we have the Forum on Scottish Education of which I have been secretary since its establishment in 1988. No, if there is to be a convention, it must be an ongoing body, given special status by the Executive.

Since the Scottish Civic Forum already has a special relationship with the Executive, any convention should be set up under the aegis of the forum. It should be a body in which educational policies are fully and publicly debated and policy positions are approved for submission to the government. A small full-time staff would be required.

We should only contemplate a convention if its findings carried more weight than those of, for example, the Glencryan school board or the Lothian Autistic Society (without any disrespect to these bodies). For "consultation", as understood by the civil service, is a pretty nebulous process and no one ever knows what attention, if any, has been paid to a particular submission.

If a national convention is not to be given a special status, then we would be better not having it.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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