Beware the 'snake oil salesmen'

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Elizabeth Buie reports from the Headteachers' Association of Scotland's annual conference.

Some subjects, such as science, are more important than others, the head of the schools inspectorate told secondary headteachers.

Graham Donaldson, the senior chief inspector of education, said last week that schools had to address why there was a fall-off in terms of the physical sciences, particularly at Higher level.

He asked delegates: "How far do the option columns engage with interest in science? That takes us back to difficult decisions. Some subjects are more important than others. We have to take some hard decisions about the relative priorities of some areas of the curriculum."

He described the First Minister's active probing about high-quality science education while they were on a joint visit to the United States as "very impressive". Mr McConnell announced proposals for selective science academies for the most able S5 and S6 pupils.

However, Mr Donaldson focused on the need to engage all young people and make science more relevant to them. He singled out modern languages as another area requiring action, but said fears that making modern languages an entitlement, rather than compulsory, would lead to a falling-off in uptake had proved unfounded.

"But are we producing young people confident in modern languages? I suspect not. Is the purpose just to have them doing modern languages (for examinations) or should we be engaging them to develop confidently? In other countries, English gives access to youth culture, but our young people have got that access, so this is hard."

Schools needed to focus on the outcomes of learning a second language, whether it was French, German, Spanish or Chinese, said Mr Donaldson, who went on to chide those who sought to portray different aspects of educational policies as eitheror options. Using the analogy of Westerns, where the goodies wore white hats and the baddies black ones, he criticised those who portrayed mixed ability classes as white hats, setting as black hats and streaming as "black hats on black horses".

"People seem to divide education into opposites, but they are not.

Combinations and mixes of these things are important to deliver a high quality learning experience for our young people."

He urged HAS members to beware of "snake oil salesmen" peddling educational initiatives. They should look for empirical evidence, measure outcomes, evaluate progress and success, and be prepared to change course if things weren't working, and heads should be sceptical rather than cynical.


Brian Souter, chief executive of the bus company Stagecoach, offered the business perspective on leadership.

His key messages included:

you are only as good as your team;

good leadership is down to management style: that can be either dominance or influence;

you should lead by example;

management strategy should set the direction of where you are trying to go and set the overall culture;

Mr Souter said 98 per cent of what he learned in school was "absolutely useless", but the 2 per cent he learned about economics stopped Stagecoach going into bankruptcy. Business should be "destigmatised" as an option.

When he was at school, business studies was regarded as being for those who were "a bit thick".

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