Back to the eighties with Labour

5th April 1996 at 01:00
These many months has Scotland awaited the unveiling of Labour's education intentions. At last revealed, there is certainly no good news for school boards. It is goodbye to parent influence and partnership, which are to be emasculated. Scotland's 1,000-plus school boards will be abolished, summarily dismissed as "dismal failures" and "an unpopular experiment".

Instead, it's back to the eighties. The boards will be replaced by "commissions", a re-creation of the old school councils covering a number of schools. Who remembers those important talking shops? It must be hard to harmonise the new voter-happy policies flowing from the fertile mind of Peter Mandelson, red rose campaign architect, with the wool-dyed conservatism of Scottish Labour.

The normal digestive process for radical new education ideas (choice of school for parents? national testing?) north of the border takes between six and eight years. Helen Liddell's Herculean task as education spokesman is to telescope this ruminant mastication process into instant digestion for a number of distinctly southern notions.

She has had to choose carefully which English ideas are appropriate to offer to the unreconstructed. Some of Tony Blair's and David Blunkett's proposals for tackling failing schools seem to have been judged too hard to sell here. Not on offer, for example, is Labour's proposal to let able pupils fast track by missing a year; or for setting by ability to be the norm. Gifted children do not rate a mention. Despite lip-service to excellence, traditional Scottish Labour remains uneasy with the achievement ethic.

Short sharp solutions considered sellable to the Scots include a central government mechanism to move in and close failing schools. There is also a proposal to deal with failing teachers - or headteachers. The demotivated or ineffective are to be removed with the minimum of fuss.

A lifeline is of, course, on offer. The inadequate teacher may, as Labour's paper puts it, "find opportunities within the education department that they could meaningfully (sic) take up".

Shades of the aftermath of the incorporation of the colleges. One region kept on its books 15 individuals no longer needed for FE administration. They blossomed happily into newly created arts, European or international posts. The job creation battalions in local councils are alive and active. Doubtless they will continue to exert muscle at pupils' expense. After all, parents wanting books for classrooms still have the options of blaming the Government or running coffee mornings.

Scotland is far from immune to Labour's problems over parental selection. Unhappily for the party's fast-track conversion to the doctrine of choice for parents, there are serious signs of a failure of articulation with some of its historical baggage. Tony Blair and Harriet Harman, his health spokesman, split the party's education policy wide apart by preferring respectively grant-maintained and grammar schools over their long-time Labour-controlled local comprehensives.

In Scotland a number of prominent Labour councillors choose to send their children to schools in the assisted places scheme. But the party wishes to abolish the scheme. This will knock one opportunity ladder from some of Scotland's most needy children. Nearly 50 per cent of the families taking advantage of the scheme have incomes around Pounds 10,000 a year. Choice, it seems, is OK if you can pay, move house, or work the system.

If you can't do any of these things, bad luck. Labour politicians will educate your child in the manner of their choosing, not necessarily in a school they would use themselves.

There is an old Scot's aphorism which says "God help the poor for the rich can help themselves". We may indeed all be equal, but some seem to be more equal than others.

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