Cross-party support crucial on key issues
As the dust settles on what was a historic, if flawed, election, it is worth considering what impact a minority government may have on education policy. If it is true that, in Scotland, education policy has tended to be created by "consensus followed by debate" rather than the "consultation followed by imposition" introduced by Michael Forsyth in the 1980s, then the political situation must surely have its advantages.
After all, education, apart from a brief flourish around the funding of universities, hardly surfaced as a key electoral issue; a far cry from the Prime Minister's "education, education, education" of 1997.
A perusal of the party manifestos reveals a degree of consensus which gives rise to optimism. Only the Conservatives began their education section from the negative standpoint that the system is failing. All other parties wanted to build on success.
Even the headline-grabbing issues revealed more consensus than discord. On class size, there seemed at first to be something of a "bidding war" - the Greens and SSP in the lead with proposals for no class in primaries to have more than 20 pupils. The SNP came close with a pledge to have P1-3 capped at 18 pupils; the Lib Dems committed themselves only to a reduction to 25 in P1-3, lower than Solidarity and much lower than Labour, at 25 in P1.
On the general issue of staffing, Labour promised 500 new languages teachersassistants to enable all pupils from P3 to learn a language. The Lib Dems proposed 1,000 additional teachers to deliver class size reduction. The Greens and Lib Dems eschewed this numbers game and promised more pay for teachers working in the most disadvantaged schools. All of the parties wanted more continuing professional development, while only the Conservatives wanted to tie it into teacher re-registration.
The issue of specialist academies united New Labour and the Conservatives.
The latter proposed city academies; the former, skills academies. Overall, most parties remain committed to the principle of comprehensive education, though the Conservatives want "the best schools to be full schools" through parental choice.
There are clearly challenges which could be addressed in an all-party forum. None of the parties appears to have thought through the logistical problems of reducing class size in schools which have no spare accommodation. The numbers of additional teachers required either to reduce class sizes further or to extend modern foreign language teaching do not appear to have been calculated in any detail. Similarly, the impact on other sectors of any redistribution of funding towards early years appears not to have been examined.
However, the consensus suggests that there is an emerging agenda for change. The challenge for any administration in Holyrood must be to try to get cross-party support on these key strategies.
Empowering teachers and others who support pupils through continuing professional development is key. Engaging with young people would also be a step forward.
If A Curriculum for Excellence is to herald a new paradigm in terms of learning and the recognition of achievement, then the current examination system and the inspection process needs to move with the times. The former needs to find new ways of assessing the range of skills society judges to be important, while the latter needs to recognise that self-evaluation is the key to long-term improvement and that external inspection disempowers schools.
The big idea in A Curriculum for Excellence is trust. Lip service, from any quarter, will not suffice.