Closing the gap between vision and reality
The theme of the day, "Quality - from vision to reality", was all encompassing, and this allowed Mr Wilson to range widely. The Government's priority with standards covers all areas. He is particularly concerned, for example, with the pre-school years. The Government's commitment to universal provision for four-year-olds and the concentration on that age group by local authorities dealing with the implications of vouchers have together produced conditions in which national guidelines are possible for the first time, backed by inspection. There is a vision, but creating the reality will depend on the decisions the minister faces on funding and overseeing three sets of providers, the local authorities, the voluntary sector and private nurseries.
Another area of concern is the early years of secondary, and Mr Wilson set the scene for the imminent Inspectorate report on what needs to be done. Secondary school targets will no doubt include improvements for S1 and S2. But the minister was keen to emphasise that "quality comes from within". External measures and monitoring have their place but there is no substitute for action by the headteacher and staff in partnership with pupils and parents.
That emphasis has two benefits from the Government's point of view. It happens to be true but it also avoids the necessity to tie targets to resources. Mr Wilson's speech was unsurprisingly a resources-free area, and when he was challenged by a headteacher who wants previous budget cuts restored his usual skill at giving a clear answer deserted him. As we knew before, we must look to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for guidance and that will not be forthcoming for a year or two yet.
Despite problems with student funding, the Government still enjoys goodwill. Much of Mr Wilson's speech could have been drafted for a Conservative minister, but the response from the audience would have been different. He won a sympathetic reception whereas his immediate predecessors were greeted with suspicion on every occasion.
The presence on the programme of Chris Woodhead, the head of the English inspectorate whose reputation with teachers was formed under the last government, might have shown the difference in audience reaction. But Mr Woodhead declined to play his character part. With disarming charm he expounded the problems of standards in schools south of the border and quietly asked if there was a resonance in Scotland. He is master of a political skill which sooner or later will be demanded of ministers when they have to face a disappointed or sceptical audience of teachers.