Any colour you like;School Management;The Sweeney

12th February 1999 at 00:00
The white paper Targeting Excellence is not white, but multi-coloured. The smiling children on the cover are there to help mitigate the effects of its contents. It costs pound;11.80, but aspiring superteachers and potential hit squaddies may qualify for special discounts.

Targeting Excellence could easily be parodied as a high-gloss Labour education manifesto for the May elections. Whatever the political genesis, it is a substantial piece of work that deserves the attention of all those with a stake in Scottish education.

The tabloid press has again risen to the occasion to convey the impression that this is a handbook for the identification of classroom superstars or a guide to the vaporisation of incompetent teachers.

The white paper is a readable and well-presented account of the Government's agenda for education. It ranges from pre-school education to drug safety, and contains few surprises. If the publication is to be criticised, it would be for blandness and predictability rather than dramatic revelations.

Many of its messages have been well rehearsed - more nursery places, smaller classes in primary schools, new community schools and loads of computers. The bits about the curriculum are as expected. By the time I got to page 50, I was wondering what all the fuss was about.

It is mainly in the sections about pay and conditions that the purple prose of the civil servant comes to life. Who could argue with the notion that "teachers' pay should be at a level to recruit, retain and motivate high quality staff"? This may not be achieved by the 0.3 per cent increase offered next year to principal teachers, who will be charged with the delivery of Higher Still.

The same chapter contains a wee cautionary cruise missile for more entrenched brethren: "We have no intention of allowing outdated central regulation to stand in the way."

The General Teaching Council is to be beefed up with the power to de-register teachers who do fail to come up to scratch. So next time the polythene envelope with the GTC logo drops through the letter box, it may be prudent to check that it contains only the newsletter.

Directors of education may be a little puzzled by the notion that "intervention by an authority in a school should be in inverse proportion to its success". This tends to suggest a deficit model, with education authorities focusing mainly on under-performance, and successful schools left to get on with their business within a "framework and culture for improvement".

The Scottish ministers may send teams into schools to give "teaching and management support". This is the one part of the menu that is difficult to swallow, but it caught the imagination of the popular media, to the exclusion of many of the proposals' positive features.

Schools have no shortage of quality assurance mechanisms, and, if the support team or hit squad ever arrives in Holy Rood, I hope it will form an orderly queue behind HMI inspectors, local authority reviewers, auditors, appraisers, subject verifiers and targets negotiators.

Where serious problems have cropped up in Edinburgh schools, they have been dealt with vigorously by the education authority and, in some well-publicised cases, by HMI. There is no need for a third tier of inspection, and this proposal may already have served its purpose of seizing the attention of the populace.

The writer William McIlvanney, who has a masterly knack of catching the essence of a problem, recently wrote: "The definition of what the teacher should be doing . . . has been re-written every other year for about three decades." Targeting Excellence is the latest amendment to this elusive agenda.

But the most cursory perusal of the document leaves the impression that the Government means business and is losing patience on certain scores. Teachers and their representatives may find that, to obtain the substantial rewards they feel are merited, they have, in the words of an old song, to "give a little, take a little, let their hearts break a little".

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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