Can Labour allow a debate?

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Recently I listened to Brian Wilson outlining his plans for Scottish schools. (Did I really hear from his lips the Conservative clarion call of the 1980s, "complacency is the enemy of success" ?) Quite remarkable was the fact that the Government's projects and directions are, by and large, a worthy continuation of the Conservative groundwork on school ethos, the spread of best practice, performance indicators, quality audit and the rest.

In fact, if you put to one side the red rags guaranteed to submerge all sensible educational debate (nursery vouchers and self-governing schools of course), there hardly seems to be room for an ice-cream wafer between the schools policies of the Scottish centre ground.

As my wise conference neighbour remarked, this state of affairs is devoutly to be wished for. Schools need continuity, and that's what's on offer. Nor is it a new phenomenon for Labour to absorb into itself policies that years previously it was loud in decrying. Think of the "choosing a school" legislation, the establishment of school boards, the introduction of teacher appraisal.

Perhaps Scotland now needs a Labour Government to carry forward Conservative education policies successfully.

The pace of such changes is quickening dramatically. Consider the current crop of Government, and indeed local authority, initiatives: school rationalisation, the enforcement of teacher appraisal, targets and standards, centres of excellence, and now possibly sixth-form colleges.

Who could possibly have imagined even one year ago that Glasgow would be seeking Pounds 40 million from the private sector to fund its new vision for that city's education?

It has been my lot to spend recent years working with a policy group which offered informal grassroots view and alternative education policy options to the past three Scottish Secretaries of State and their Education Ministers. Sometimes our views were taken up directly.

Other times to our regret they were spiked. But it is quite gratifying that so few strands from our particular vision mix have fallen on stony ground or crashed out with the late Government.

Perhaps only a Labour Government with a hefty majority and four years to go could confront the ailing concept of the Scottish comprehensive school - a structure which must modernise and evolve. Now pragmatic folk realise that sixth-year colleges are one promising option for delivering the full range of Advanced Highers. Such a proposal would, a year ago, have elicited scornful accusations of the Englishing of the Scots education system, and noisy claims that the creaming off of the few would lead to the detriment of the many.

This proposal now receives a more muted response. You can tell, of course, that the lions - like Albert - don't like it. We hear the familiar script about social divisiveness, regression and - that cardinal sin - elitism. There will of course be skirmishes if not battles, but the lions will doubtless be duly trampled underfoot and consigned to some millennium zoo by the combined forces of New Labour and new pragmatism.

The Government has at the moment little effective opposition from any political quarter in Scotland. Therefore it's interesting to note the occasional voice of dissent appearing in unexpected circles. Consider, for example, the views of Willie Innes, Labour convenor of education in East Lothian.

The Government's proposal for lower targets for schools in deprived areas affronts Mr Innes. Such a proposal will disadvantage poorer children in both the job market and higher education, he believes. The councillor is right, of course. Let us hope that the Government will encourage such open debate in its ranks.

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