Change gets my personal support

13th November 2009 at 00:00

I wonder how many guidance (sorry, personal support) staff have clicked on the "autumn update" page on the Learning and Teaching Scotland website. Those who have, will have been surprised to learn that there has been a "change in policy direction in personal support from the 10 standards for PS provided in Happy, Safe and Achieving their Potential to a broader definition required to meet the commitment in Building the Curriculum 3."

They might also wonder why, given the plethora of policies on support which singularly fail to provide anything resembling practical, focused advice, there is a need for a "broader definition".

This change appears to be under the auspices of something called the Scottish Government policy group, supported by a national network and a steering group. The policy group will apparently draw together "the full range and approaches of frameworks across 25 policy areas". We also learn about "overarching strategic priorities" (no self-respecting group or report would be without them, or similar things like "underpinning values") to do with early intervention, early years, health inequalities, anti-poverty strategies and the like.

This change in policy direction is extremely significant for PS staff in schools. Effectively, Happy, Safe . (aka the national review of guidance) and the 10 standards are dead in the water, despite the conflicting advice in Building the Curriculum 3 that they "continue to be important".

The national review and the standards were published only a few years ago as part of the Curriculum for Excellence programme. There was a reference group (of which I was part), supported by eagle-eyed civil servants keen to ensure that rafts of government policies were reflected at all times. The standards were established, implementation groups toured the country and made videos of good practice and the publicity continued well into 2007. The new "change in policy direction" looks as if it is going to repeat all of this.

For many, the standards were a half-way house between the numbingly vague, repetitive (if often noble) policy statements on the one hand - often not policies at all - that appeared from every conceivable organisation which had any involvement with children and, on the other, the tick-box, checklist kind of model.

The standards had limitations, arguably because they erred on the side of caution and were not detailed or prescriptive enough for many school staff. However, with some work and, most importantly, with some joined-up thinking elsewhere, many schools would have been able to use them.

Ironically, however, the standards have been seen by policy-makers as too prescriptive and not quite "on message" with BtC3. It is also ironic that a great deal of time has been spent pushing the message that "PS is everyone's responsibility", while providing very little in terms of practical advice - advice which can be found in many earlier guidance reports, for example. Good practice exemplars are fine as far as they go, but the standards approach (adopted in many other professional areas) was a significant starting point for schools, in the absence of any other advice.

What is now proposed, however, appears to take us even further away from anything resembling practical help. Once again, a policy group will oversee the work of network and steering groups - and, once again, pilot projects will gather good practice just as they did before. Wheels will be reinvented, but this time the outcome is even less certain.

In some ways, perhaps, we should not be too surprised at this change in direction. "Joined-up thinking" has not been part of the process in guidance since the McCrone report. There have been at least three "strands" or lines of thinking, all travelling in parallel but never designed to meet.

The "Happy, Safe" strand has been mentioned above. The second parallel "Building the Curriculum" approach spent a lot of time on curricular areas but was all at sea with the role of pupil support and made no attempt to link curricular areas, capacities and PS. Indeed, PS spent some time under the banner of "health and well-being", which included health, physical education and contributions from home economics. Eventually, PS became a separate "floating" area with its own entitlement although, unlike previous entitlements in the 1980s, there was no additional advice on implementation or structures.

The third parallel approach has been forged by HMIE, which appears to be using a different language altogether. PS is not, for example, one of the 10 "dimensions of excellence", which is unfortunate, given that HMIE itself argues that these dimensions are key processes in a school. They do talk of "well-being and respect", but this is a different well-being from "health and well-being". Two or three issues around "care and support" are mentioned, but none of this is related to standards or entitlements.

Finally, How Good Is Our School 3, which is a crucial self-evaluation document for schools, introduces "care, welfare and development". A quick scan reveals no mention of the term "personal support".

This fractured, confused approach has done nothing to illuminate the ongoing practical issues for schools in restructuring personal support. Repetitive "policy" documents, which are often born out of political rather than educational expediency, will do nothing to help the situation. If the new direction provides practical help which cuts through some of the parallel lines, it will be welcomed. It will also be the first PS document to do so for a very long time.

David McLaren is in the department of educational and professional studies at Strathclyde University.

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