Choose your allies well, new minister

4th May 2007 at 01:00
As readers peruse this column, the Scottish electorate will have voted but the counting will be incomplete. The shape of the new executive will be uncertain as the parties negotiate arrangements. An education minister will not have been appointed.

Hopefuls will be awaiting their opportunity. Let me offer advice on priorities, advice which should be palatable to politicians of any party likely to be in a coalition.

First, the new minister should loudly acknowledge that Scottish education is in good health, that schools and teachers are working well, that everyone is committed to building from that base and that there is a strong consensus for the maintenance and strengthening of our comprehensive system.

Second, as a simple, immediate reform, the minister should pledge to end the anomaly of school-leaving dates based on 16th birthdays. Let's ensure that young people do not start secondary younger than 11 years and eight months and make leaving conditional on the completion of four years of secondary education. This would allow people who have completed their essential education and who wish to move into the adult world to do so, and allow schools to operate without a timetabling absurdity and reluctant, Christmas-leaver conscripts.

Standard grades will go soon. Their original purpose, certification for all, has been achieved. National qualifications create, in most subjects, a more coherent progression route and are already available. The new minister should use the next two years to sort out the few weaknesses in specific NQs and announce that the last diet of Standard grades will be 2009.

National testing serves no positive purpose. It distorts the curriculum. It also should go.

The new minister might abjure certain words and phrases. The constant reiteration, for example, of "improvement" and "raising standards" implies poor quality and low standards. Similarly, a self-denying ordinance in respect of attainment statistics might allow schools to concentrate on the promotion of sound learning and inspiring teaching rather than being exam factories.

The minister might also seek to avoid the fallacy that, once a social problem has been identified, the best solution is to teach its antithesis.

The curriculum is not elastic. Having accommodated teaching about drugs, drink, promiscuity, bullying, enterprise, citizenship and a host of other issues, no further additions would bring relief.

The lesson should be learnt of Assessment is for Learning, one of the most successful of recent innovations. Where change genuinely supports improved teaching and learning and where the details of implementation are left to practitioners, it will be implemented enthusiastically and will bring appreciable and measurable benefits.

We wish the new minister well. As a key part of Scottish civic society, schools and teachers have much to offer. See us as allies and we can support you in making Scotland a more confident, dynamic and cohesive country. We would be proud partners in such a venture.

Alex Woodis head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh

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