Different strokes for different folks

10th September 1999 at 01:00
TWO North American speakers paralleled the contrasting approaches of Douglas Osler and Chris Woodhead, although both spoke the language of standards, accountability and continuous improvement.

James Kohlmoos, a deputy assistant secretary at the education department in Washington, was uncannily resonant of Scottish concerns as he expounded the Clinton administration's motto of "equity and excellence".

By contrast, Barry Devolin, a former adviser to the right-wing Premier of Ontario, relished his part in taking on the teachers from whom the provincial government is now "estranged".

Partnership was not for him as he recounted how the Canadian unions resisted a wholesale regime of streaming with testing of pupils and teachers.

Mr Kohlmoos said the US wanted high standards for all children with a close eye kept on school performance. But he warned that assessment must "measure what you value not value something simply because you can measure it".

The way forward was through partnership and collaboration because "schools can't do it alone". Additional help is being targeted on those in greatest need and extended learning would support pupils' study to combat the 40 per cent of students who perform below their grade levels.

More familiarity to Scottish ears followed as he outlined US concern about the problems of persuading graduates to take up teaching - 30 per cent leave the profession after three years. Effort was also being put into improving school leadership and developing "the most important partnership of all" between parents and the school.

The final message from Mr Kohlmoos offered the perfect contrast to Mr Devolin as he counselled against engineering change from the top downwards. "You need leadership," he said, "but the vitality has to come from the bottom up."

Mr Devolin preferred the Woodhead approach that teachers who do not get behind a reform programme should not be allowed to block it. The changes wrought in Ontario had been popular with the public and the Progressive Conservatives had been re-elected in June with an increased share of the vote.

Marching to the barricades under the banner of "the commonsense revolution", Ontario embarked on its reform programme out of a conviction that the millions spent on education was being misdirected, with evidence that standards were slipping and employers complaining that young recruits could not read or write.

Like Mr Woodhead, Mr Devolin showed little patience with "progressive" theories and endless research studies. "This movement towards higher standards and accountability is unstoppable. Those who defend the status quo will be seen as obstacles.

"My message is that if you resist change you will be overcome. It doesn't seem that Scotland is quite at that point but I think that point will come."

Having listened to part of Mr Devolin's speech, Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, commented: "And we think we've got problems."

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