Debating style is just too bold

26th March 2010 at 00:00

Email correspondence can be risky territory in which to have an argument. The vitriol level rises rapidly. Possibly it's the sense of anonymity, like the masks in Lord of the Flies, or a sense of frustration that our words are not supported by body language. Anyway, by the time you have reached a third response, the tone is definitely a little terse and the stick grows sharper at both ends.

I was recently accused of "shouting" at a colleague, because I had emboldened some of my words (for emphasis); this breach of email protocol so enraged him that he sought me out and, lo and behold, the matter was sorted in seconds by the exchange of a few Glasgow "pleasantries".

Talking things through seems an obvious approach to take to problems we face. Sadly, "shouting", in any of its metaphorical applications, seems to be the default mode of society - witnessed daily in our media and demonstrated all too clearly in the behaviour of many of our politicians.

Despite being an active democrat, I am already weary in the run-up to the general election of the shambles that parades itself as political debate: personal attacks; negative campaigning; petty point-scoring. Small wonder so many potential voters opt not to condone this charade through personal involvement. We are charged, in schools, with developing responsible citizenship - but where are the role models?

The situation is even more depressing when we focus on Scotland's Parliament. What happened to the new type of politics that accompanied the birth of Holyrood? Is it beyond the wit of our politicians to work together for the benefit of Scotland, and in particular for Scottish education?

Curriculum for Excellence, for example, is at a crossroads: the major policy decisions have been made and we are at a key phase of implementation. Political leadership is required if this is not to go badly wrong - a real possibility - but that leadership is less likely to be exercised effectively if it becomes subject to the party political finger-pointing that seems to characterise much of Parliament's education debate.

A case in point is the need to delay the introduction of the new qualifications. There are several reasons for that: poor communication about the senior phase and how it articulates with a broad general education; delays in providing timetable models; delays in the design principles for the new qualifications; financial pressures resulting in less time and resources being available for development work; and the fact that a significant number of secondaries are not sufficiently conversant yet with the key principles of CfE.

Do we need to find someone to blame or can we recognise that that's where we are, and plan accordingly? Let's remember that the qualification framework is a subset of CfE; it's not the programme.

Responsible leadership also needs to be displayed at local government level. It's pointless to talk about CfE being a "bottom-up" approach to curricular development and then try to drive from the top a pace of implementation that is beyond the capacity of schools and staff to maintain, and of councils to finance. It's a bit like a crash diet: there seems to be an immediate impact, but soon we're back where we started, only feeling a lot worse about the whole thing.

Curricular development is a long-term process, not a quick fix. It's surely better to pace ourselves and get it right than rush forward and sacrifice the potential of CfE to effect worthwhile change. The trouble is, people are "shouting", capitals are being used and bold type abounds. Collegiate discussion, a sense of community and common purpose, and some Scottish courtesy might yet save us.

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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