The costs of diversity? Let me count the ways ...

28th April 2000 at 01:00
Is it the tour operators who decide on the dates of Scottish school holidays? The peak season is gradually being extended to cover the entire calendar.

"Difficult to get you anything that week, Sir," I hear them say. "That's the school week, you know."

"It's not my school week," I retort tetchily.

It turns out to be the Lanarkshire holidays, which are different from the Edinburgh holidays, neither of which correspond to the Fife holidays.

West Lothian will always have different holidays from Edinburgh, just for the hell of it. There is the potential for 32 separate sets of school holidays, as each local authority asserts its autonomy.

It is astonishing, in this wee country of ours, how little uniformity or even consistency we manage to achieve. Education may be particularly prone to uneconomical diversity, because of the Scottish allergy to imposition of a national curriculum or other monolithic requirements. We seem to have to be free to let a million flowers bloom, even when it is costing us a fortune.

Curriculum development is a salient example. I have a full shelf of fleshed-out work experience modules from different authorities across the country. I have no recollection of my reason for collecting them, but each covered the identical learning outcomes in a substantial tome. Presumably, each poor blighter who compiled them burned the midnight oil, blissfully unaware of the toil of his colleagues.

The business studies folk have got it sussed. Through Northern College they collaborate in a development network. An annual subscription affords them free access to the end products. This is extremely laudable and an example to others, but business studies teachers couldn't survive without such an arrangement, as they invent a new course every time they meet.

There needs to be a national curriculum development centre, with teachers commissioned to produce curriculum materials for distribution on-line to all schools. No course should be launched before there are adequate resources, properly evaluated, in the teacher's hands.

There has been a degree of amateurism about the managemnt of curriculum development in Scotland. The advent of Higher Still and its enormous curriculum development implications will require the national act to be sharpened.

Authorities have been casting around for suitable baseline tests to facilitate value-added judgments about the progress of pupils. They feel constrained to do so because of the limited usefulness of national tests for any purpose other than comparing the performance of schools. Some are using the Edinburgh Reading Test, while Edinburgh is experimenting with National Foundation for Educational Research tests.

At the risk of agreeing with Michael Forsyth, a former Scottish education minister now enjoying the privileges of peerage, there should be one test for all pupils transferring from primary to secondary school. Its objective should not be to judge or condemn pupils in the manner of the iniquitous 11-plus. Rather it should provide a starting point against which the progress of every single child can be measured.

We cannot complain about raw examination results while maintaining our objection to baseline testing. There is a spurious argument that we need both national testing and baseline tests, but this is no more than de facto rationalisation. National testing should be jettisoned in favour of something more useful.

The National Grid for Learning is a mixed bag. The Edinburgh ICT Initiative is well ahead of the game, largely because of the dedication and tenacity of officers such as Isobel Vass. We have computer equipment beyond our dreams, and our pupils are benefiting enormously. Schools in other areas are less fortunate. Across the country there is a baffling array of systems.

Here was a clear case for national uniformity. A single provider could have been given the job of putting a homogeneous system into every school in the country, with appropriate maintenance and staff training.

It may also have been an opportune moment to standardise school administration packages with a system that works. "Vive la difference!" can be a costly slogan.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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