Parents should receive state funds to set up their own schools,including religious ones, a leadingeducational researcher has suggested. Lindsay Paterson of Moray House Institute says parent choice and student expectations now make demands that can no longer be met by existing structures.
The Danish system of voluntary schools governed by parents, which receive some public money provided they meet a number of minimum requirements, could be one way forward, Professor Paterson told an Educational Institute of Scotland conference in Stirling.
He suggested that this might help resolve the dilemma of whatto do with denominational schools by transferring them to a voluntary sector. Some of the running costs and most of the responsibility would then be taken on by the communities involved, allowing the Catholic sector to survive and other faiths to set up their own schools.
But the conference, to mark the 150th anniversary of the EIS, did not seem particularly impressed and was exercised more by the fate of comprehensive education.
Glasgow's attempt to overhaul comprehensive principles for the 21st century (page five) was hotly debated, and Shelagh Rae, director of education in Renfrewshire, criticised "one-solution approaches" which might be suitable only for large urban areas.
Professor Paterson questioned whether "a system of standardised comprehensive schools is now an inappropriately conservative force in Scottish education". He said there was evidence to support Glasgow's moves, in particular the creation of specialist schools offering more than a core curriculum. Research from the United States, showed that magnet schools are more effective and more egalitarian than state or most independent schools because they reduced inequalities in attainment.
The advent of Higher Still would create pressure for larger schools specialising in particular subjects if pupils were to be offered the full range of courses, Professor Paterson said. Research from the United States suggested the ideal size for a secondary school was 600-900 pupils. Smaller and larger schools were less effective, particularly for working class children and ethnic minorities.
Mrs Rae questioned whether the same broad curriculum was possible in every school, given the Higher Still reforms. She suggested a radical review of the curriculum based on "what pupils need to learn?" But she warned that vested interests, including those of subject teachers, could get in the way.
Professor Paterson said the major challenge may be to shift resources from initial education in schools, colleges and universities into lifelong learning. This could be a better way of widening opportunity.
In the meantime FE colleges might be better placed than the universities at breaking down barriers to higher education. The FE sector educated around 30 per cent of undergraduates in Scotland, compared with 12 per cent in England, and was better at attracting working-class or older students.
"The FE colleges are the truest inheritors of the 19th century Scottish university tradition in their social openness and student diversity," Professor Paterson declared.
The conference also heard from Brian Boyd of Jordanhill's quality in education centre of the essential "four Es" - entitlement, equity, ethos and expectations.
Dr Boyd called on the culture of ethos and reward, regarded as important for pupils, to be extended to teachers. But he challenged the EIS to consider whether the current system of promoted posts, the funding imbalance between the primary and secondary sectors, and the hierarchical nature of school management were compatible with the need to celebrate and acknowledge teachers' work in the classroom.
He also urged teachers not to be afraid of giving pupils a voice. "What are we afraid of? Pupils like schools, believe in their teachers and have insights which we ignore at our peril."