Blair's blinkered vision

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Helene Witcher wants to see more commitment to ideals in Labour's education policy

I scanned Labour's consultative document on education in Scotland last year and assumed, somewhat lazily, that it would be sorted out by those closer to Tony Blair's teeth than myself. I was wrong. Building Scotland's Future remains a flimsy piece of scaffolding for any structure designed to support the next generations. Take the first page. Labour believes it is essential to give a proper place to the diversity of religious and cultural traditions that make up modern Scotland. That "proper place" turns out to a be a nine-line paragraph headed "Celebrating cultural diversity". Apart from a commitment to maintain Gaelic-medium schools and giving a politically appropriate nod towards Scottish literature, cultural heritage and respect for "regional dialects", the paragraph ignores Scotland's cultural mix.

Gaelic speakers of my acquaintance recognise readily that they represent but one group. Not only does Labour neglect all other groups but it fails to recognise diversity's downside. The use of the term "celebrating" should be warning enough. It shows a dismal disinterest in tackling prejudice, bigotry and racism. Even the sparse note about dialect is left undeveloped. Labour should be especially aware that prejudice towards Scots dialects is as much a product of class distinction as anything else and challenging such attitudes should be fundamental to their policies.

Frighteningly, the movement to install multicultural and anti-racist education as a cross-curricular element within Scottish schools is ignored. The paper is blank on gender issues. It is silent about the facts that increasing numbers of boys are disaffected and underachieving and ignores the disturbing links between this fact, reduced traditional male employment opportunities and the changes in family life and organisation which are reflected in statistics about health and crime. It is silent about the fact that girls are achieving better than ever in school but, still, are not cracking through the glass ceiling when it comes to an associated level of achievement in the workplace.

The curriculum merits two paragraphs. Labour's commitment to consolidation rather than bouncing schools into further changes is welcome. It asserts, reasonably enough, that mature individuals must have a sense of social responsibility and it urges the teaching of citizenship, social skills and parenting. But then the imagination runs dry. Social responsibility is enormously important in terms of how people use their knowledge. Young people are leaving school with an increasingly sophisticated body of knowledge and skills, particularly in terms of science and technology but also through the manipulation of media and of language. Politically, it is imperative to articulate a view about the intellectual and ethical framework for applying such knowledge and to offer a baseline about why we should invest in education in the first place.

Being a good citizen is not to do simply with keeping your kids well fed, off the streets and focused on personal achievement. It is to do with respecting the power and responsibility that accrue with knowledge and skills and applying that vigorously in the interests of the local and global community. Their attitudes and values will have a critical impact upon the future. These are the issues with which a manifesto should nail its colours to the scaffolding.

Labour's document neglects intellectual excitement and intellectual responsibility. It ignores the fact that students still enter the teaching profession with a hope and commitment to share worthwhile areas of knowledge, that they want to help children develop the critical and analytical skills to use it effectively and responsibly. Instead, it echoes the tired Tory hegemony about personal achievement and tidying up the underclasses.

Technology, unsurprisingly, is awarded six paragraphs. "Enormous education opportunities", as the document describes them, are certainly present, but a political vision should not regard opportunities simply as personal pathways to future employment. It should establish an intellectual and ethical framework for the future. For example, where else might the superhighway take our children? A shallow and uncritical belief in technology for its own sake is downright dangerous. Ready access to worldwide libraries and sources of information is fantastic but enthusiasm must be located in realistic contexts. Who makes most use of the Internet and for what purpose? We need to get a grip on precisely what we want technology for and to apply ourselves to developing best use, rather than lying back massaged by the idea the we are dead smart because we can log on to rubbish. It is the product of such use that should exercise educators rather than simply the process.

Labour erects the new shibboleth of compacts with school students as national scaffolding to support parental involvement, early and continuous assessment and criteria for acceptable behaviour. There are valid principles but they leave me uneasy. On one hand parents are urged to claim their right to make choices. On the other, they are condemned if they or their offspring step outwith the narrow criteria of what a "proper family" should be.

There remains the knowledge that Tony Blair and Harriet Harman present role models of parents who, in the face of underachieving schools, have fled to cosier climes. Instead of investing their clout and their own education into the process of helping their children's schools to achieve or regain standards of high attainment and self worth they exercise their "choice" and withdraw their children to be educated elsewhere. A poor model for anyone who believes in the power of a genuine community of parents and teachers working together in the best interests of children.

That context engenders scepticism. Implicit in this document is a definition of Scottish children and their families as mostly a set of dafties to be managed. The message is that participating, achieving middle-class families will be welcomed while those who have better or other things to do will be excluded or corralled into parenting classes while their children are dosed with homework. The recognition of the importance of early years education and associated multi-agency work is important. In the document the proposal is limited to support for two centres of early excellence in the whole country. It is good that the new Government, rather than establishing two self-promotional flagships, has increased the sum which the Conservatives intended should be spent on supporting good practice.

Respect for individuality, for intellectual achievement in an ethical framework and a desire to look beyond personal goals to the wider community and to global contexts are missing from Building Scotland's Future. A passion for education in itself, for the vitality of the process and the simple but necessary love of humanity which is fundamental to the best teaching and learning is notably absent. It is an anodyne document. Now it is in Government, Labour may inject some of its abundant energy into building a rather different future from the one depicted in this first draft. Let's hope so.

Helene Witcher is an adviser with Clackmannanshire Council. She writes in a personal capacity.

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