The case for tagging education ministers

21st May 2004 at 01:00
It's a hard life being Education Minister. Poor old Peter Peacock had to spend his Easter holidays on a "fact-finding" tour of Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, a task that can't have been made easier by the presence of the editor of The TES Scotland among his entourage. (Note to editor: please expect an expenses claim from me for a "fact-finding" tour of the Caribbean.) I'm not sure it is sensible to let education ministers out of the country.

They tend to get ideas and then try to apply them at home, thereby adding to the existing domestic confusion. I seem to recall that when Michael Forsyth was in charge of Scottish education, he imported some of his wackier schemes from Denmark and New Zealand.

In case this double mention of New Zealand is misinterpreted, let me emphasise that I am very well disposed towards that country and regularly support the Kiwis in rugby matches.

In Singapore, Mr Peacock learnt that pupils routinely bow to teachers when they enter the classroom. Try introducing that in some of our livelier comprehensives. One of the key issues in Australia is building leadership capacity for the future, with a high proportion of teachers retiring over the next 10 years. Here Scotland does face a similar challenge.

The most interesting aspect of Mr Peacock's trip was his enthusiasm for a research study of Maori children which found that, from their perspective, the critical factor in classroom effectiveness was the quality of the relationship between teacher and pupil. This contrasted with the much greater weight given by teachers to external social, economic and cultural forces.

The conclusion that has been drawn is that some teachers are too quick to form a "deficit" view of their pupils because of their background and this can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The report of the research study suggests that, unless teachers address their attitudes and beliefs about educability and potential, many pupils will continue to be short-changed by schools. Mr Peacock intends to commission similar research in Scotland to see if the same findings emerge here.

For some time, I have argued that we need a more subtle account of the relationship between "in-school" and "out-of-school" factors in explaining achievement. At one extreme, there are the social determinists who think that everything is dependent on the cultural capital that children bring to school and that teachers can do little to combat disadvantage.

At the other extreme, there are the school effectiveness gurus who believe that, with the right mix of strong leadership, high expectations, clear targets, positive ethos and firm discipline, schools can transform the world. The truth almost certainly lies somewhere in between.

The research findings from the Maori study invite cautious interpretation.

There is a danger that the "deficit" will simply be transferred from the pupils to the teachers, as has already happened in England. The next logical step would be to pass on the deficit to the administrators, the policy makers and the politicians - and we couldn't have that.

If we are serious about getting to grips with the hard issues that underlie underachievement, it is not acceptable simply to reattribute the blame. We all have a responsibility to try to make things better.

Let's hope the Scottish study which Mr Peacock intends to commission is honest about these issues. However, following Jack McConnell's initiatives to combat antisocial behaviour, I have a suggestion to prevent the potential for chaos caused by foreign missions undertaken by education ministers.

They should be electronically tagged, compelled to carry identity cards at all times, and required to surrender their passports.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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