Been there, done that, but we'll do it all again

8th December 2000 at 00:00
In the late Eighties, I was trying to promote links between education and business in the Lothian region. We had compacts, teacher placements, work experience, Young Enterprise and a whole battery of initiatives and projects.

All had acronyms to match, competing in cacophony, but none more phonetically bizarre than IEATS, a project which encourages business involvement in initial teacher education.

There were education and business partnerships large and small, ambitious and mundane, national and international.

However, one fine day we were all invited to down tools and head for Ingliston, since the Government had decided to launch Education Business Partnerships, which would have additional funding, and new capital letters.

Ten years later, the EBP network has a significant role in promoting business links. The messenger and the trappings have changed, but the essence of pupils' experience remains unaltered.

The new initiative is often the repackaging of the familiar. There is even a subliminal suggestion abroad that "quality in teaching and learning" is a novelty, revealed to the world by the publication of How Good is Our School? In reality, good teaching and effective learning are as old as the hills. They just didn't have a number.

The new education minister, Jack McConnell, has hit the streets running and I wish him all the good fortune he will require in cutting the Gordian knot of Scottish education. In his first sortie, to his old school in Alloa, he sensationally unveiled the national agenda for the future. Her Majesty's Government has set out its stall of priorities for the years ahead.

Would you believe it? We are going to have to turn our minds to achievement and attainment, equality, values and learning for life. I'm not sure I can stand the wrench and dislocation of such alien concepts.

Nobody could possibly argue with the priorities as promulgated. Nor could Mr McConnell be faulted for declaring his hand in a school. He may find that teachers are sceptical about politicians, whose common characteristic appears to be transence. Four education ministers since 1997 equals the track record of a certain Glasgow football club, which has been floored by a surfeit of good Bordeaux.

The Tories also flitted through the educational portfolio with remarkable velocity. They had the excuse that they needed more Scottish Office ministers than they had Scottish MPs, and they enlisted the support of the odd high peer to keep things flowing.

"Improving Our Schools" was the manifesto for the future. It set out the substance of the education Act which has now passed into statute. In the time-honoured tradition of brave new worlds, it was hot on generalisation and lukewarm in the territory of action and resources.

Nevertheless, we are eternally indebted to the writers of the consultation document for such carefully crafted gems as: "Relationships with teachers are more important for pupils when they have a concern or a problem." We have to know these things.

Freeing up of curricular guidelines is a feature of the new dispensation. We have always claimed that there is no national curriculum in Scotland, but the "yellow peril" guidelines have assumed the status of a compulsory blueprint, especially at school inspection time. This has required us to drive very square pegs into very round holes, and has contributed to the sizeable group of pupils who vote with their feet in the third and fourth years. As we embrace the doctrine of inclusion, the monolithic nature of the curriculum is a mighty obstacle to progress.

Giving schools a freer hand to meet the individual needs of their pupils, far from letting us off the hook, will challenge our resourcefulness and imagination. Inspectors and local authorities can then scrutinise our quality rather than our conformity.

I see that the Scottish Qualifications Authority is appointing a development officer "to bring all Scottish qualifications into a single framework". If he succeeds, he will deserve a level F for progress, a band 1 for effort and an A pass for tenacity.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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