To the classroom born

21st September 2007 at 01:00
The new convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland's education committee, and the new Cosla spokeswoman on education, come from very different

backgrounds.

Henry Hepburn meets them

it's clear that Larry Flanagan still spends a lot of time in the classroom. When the new convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland's education committee is asked about the big issues for schools, his response leaves you in no doubt.

The first thing he raises is A Curriculum for Excellence, about which he exhibits guarded enthusiasm. Mr Flanagan remains loyal to the classroom and wants to know what the document's words mean in practice before he sings its praises. "It hasn't seeped into practical measures in the classroom, and that's the key what's it going to mean for day-to-day practitioners?" he asks. "If I have a priority, it's forming that interface between the measures and the practitioners."

The principles are "clearly outlined", he says, but until translated into practice, Mr Flanagan is wary of the potential for ACfE to be twisted to suit conflicting aims: "I've seen it used as a catch-all heading for initiatives which I think would be open to question in terms of underlying principles."

His keenness to spend as much time as possible among the pupils of Hillhead High in Glasgow, where he is principal teacher of English, helps him maintain a healthy scepticism: "I always think there's a gap between the rhetoric and a lot of the classroom initiatives."

Mr Flanagan, 51, is a man of deep convictions, who in the 1980s was firmly on the left of the Labour party in Glasgow at one point he was suspended for "anti-poll tax activities". He resigned from Labour over foreign policy issues, having become disillusioned with the direction in which Tony Blair was taking the party. He retains a passion for social justice, but admits he approaches issues in a more consensual way these days.

Some priorities have shifted he sees Scottish independence as crucial, although he is not a member of any political party. Mr Flanagan believes that, as well as a debate around the development of the curriculum, there must be an awareness of wider societal pressures on schools specifically poverty.

"Poverty is the single biggest factor that reduces the educational opportunities of the biggest single group in Scottish schools. It doesn't get the profile it deserves, because it's been around for so long that it's become an accepted aspect."

He believes that the break-up of the regional councils in 1996 had an impact, pointing out that Strathclyde Regional Council used to have a poverty strategy and that its demise coincided with poverty becoming less of a priority.

Mr Flanagan is also passionate about helping schools deal with "the rapidly changing nature of the school population in terms of asylum seekers and children of migrant workers". He is concerned that teachers are not being given the support, and speaks from a position of knowledge: his EIS biography mentions that he has been "involved in developing his subject with regard to an appropriate curriculum and methodology to meet the needs of a multi-ethnic school and multi-ethnic city".

He says this is a "huge issue which is under-resourced teachers have to cope with 20 or 30 non-English-speaking pupils arriving in a primary school". But it is no longer merely an urban issue, he adds, pointing to evidence that rural schools near Aberdeen, for example, are also affected. Lack of support and training for teachers is Scotland-wide.

Mr Flanagan's affinity with the classroom practitioner also brings up league tables. The Scottish Executive may not publish them, and Assessment is for Learning may promote formative assessment; nevertheless, he says, the information is collated by authorities and pulled together by newspapers, with a little help from the Freedom of Information Act. He abhors league tables, and this brings him back to where he started. Use of this "crude measuring tool runs totally counter to A Curriculum for Excellence".

So the new curriculum is, in theory, a force for good against more reactionary elements. Mr Flanagan just wishes it would start making a difference in the classroom.

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