Could Blair's big gamble pay off here?

9th March 2001 at 00:00
It was a canny move of HMI to choose two such contrasting authorities for its historic first inspections of Scotland's education authorities: one praiseworthy, the other failing. East Dunbartonshire's starkly catalogued weaknesses point with far bleaker effect than any ministerial speech could do the hitherto unmapped geographical lottery on offer for Scotland's children. Parents everywhere can be satisfied that 30 other authorities, facing up to their own inspections, will now be taking account of the power of name and shame.

Good marks, too, to the Executive for moving on incompetence, and on the recruitment drive to attract 7,500 additional staff in the wake of the McCrone settlement. Though the total reforming edge is comically blunted by the news that the excessive waves of bureaucratically originated paperwork entering schools are to be reduced. How? By the allocation of even more civil service jobs - a new layer of bureaucracy called a gatekeeper unit.

The cash would surely be better spent running short courses on the basic skills of journalism for senior staff in the Executive. Many headteachers would enjoy providing the course material: "Does this report really need to be eight pages long? Has every word earned its place? Where is the duplication or repetition? Would it be more effective cut to two sides of A4?" Jack McConnell said recently that Scottish education is at a turning point. So it is, and not only because of the satisfying and welcome financial settlement endorsed by 80 per cent of teachers. It is at a crossroads of particular significance to Labour's education philosophy, as policies diverge ever more widely in the north and south of this small island. Othe policy variations already include private sector managers for failing schools and a national curriculum.

The newly erected signpost at the crossroads looks suspiciously like an English Green Paper in which Tony Blair publicly outlines the limitations of the comprehensive system, and sketches radical plans for overhaul. This marks a divergence of political paths that will result in ever more careful scrutiny by the public of the policy offerings of other Scottish parties. Mr Blair's big gamble is to shed the dull conformity of the comprehensive system and create a network of 1,500 specialised schools, some sponsored by private companies, voluntary organisations and "faith" communities.

Mr McConnell, who is said to have Blairite instincts, has the challenge of rejecting or adapting these ideas for the Scottish context. It has to be said that the Prime Minister and his education supremo David Blunkett have shown courage in the cause of a better deal for the most deprived. (Perhaps they have now come to regret two of the Government's earliest actions: the ending of grant-maintained status and of assisted places).

Of course, old Labour everywhere - and not only in Scotland - flinched at the unfortunate reference by the Prime Minister's official spokesman to "bog standard" comprehensive schools. The reintroduction of selection and the spectre of a two-tier education system loom in many minds. What will happen to the 50 per cent of children who do not show "aptitude" for selection to one of the specialised schools?

Labour's political philosophy appears to be breaking up before our eyes. But of greater significance is the question of getting it right for children.

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