Consensus was the calm before the political storm

13th February 2015 at 00:00

For years the casual observer could have been forgiven for assuming that all was fine and dandy in Scottish schools.

The mainstream media took sporadic pops at Curriculum for Excellence but their ire always fizzled out, and opposition politicians seldom managed a direct hit on Michael Russell during his five-year tenure as education secretary. Scottish education, being devolved and largely free of the strife recently experienced by England's teachers, was all but ignored in the Scottish independence campaign.

Now, however, something has changed. Education is once again becoming a battleground.

In the past few weeks we have had finance secretary John Swinney at loggerheads with local authorities over teacher numbers; education directors and teaching unions in a tit for tat around Advanced Highers; and headteachers denouncing what they see as a Pollyannaish take on curricular reform from national education bodies.

Political parties, meanwhile, have been conspicuously jockeying for position, insisting that they alone can erase the biggest stain on Scotland's educational record: a yawing attainment gap that segregates children from poorer and wealthier backgrounds even before primary school. (We've known about this for quite some time but it has only now become a priority. As ever, looming elections sharpen political minds.)

Labour recently promised to parachute help into the 20 most disadvantaged secondary schools. Fine, said first minister Nicola Sturgeon this week - I see your pound;25 million attainment plan and raise you a pound;100 million "Attainment Scotland Fund" (see pages 6-7). Debate is healthy, so here's to more public wrangling over politicians' propositions.

The flip side of consensus is that challenges to prevailing orthodoxies have been rare. Sometimes that was because people were content, but sometimes the reasons were more troubling.

Scottish headteachers, never mind their staff, seldom go public with misgivings. Given that we often hear allegations of people being hauled over the coals for expressing their opinions, or even being passed over for jobs after apparently innocuous public utterances, this is perhaps not surprising.

Some headteachers, however, have decided that the time has come to speak (see pages 8-10). They have told MSPs of their fears that Curriculum for Excellence is doing the opposite of what it set out to achieve: adding to pupils' assessment burden and stifling their creativity; making teachers tick more boxes and jump through more hoops.

These headteachers represent only a small fraction of schools in Scotland. It could be argued that statistically their views mean little, that other school leaders - like voters who choose to abstain in elections - are tacitly endorsing the status quo.

Our sense is that this is undoubtedly not the case: expect more and more headteachers to speak out in the months and years ahead.

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