Dogma doesn't work

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Tino Ferri retires as a union activist next week and has a blunt message about the way ahead for the new Scottish Executive.

IN the late 1960s, comprehensive education had been imposed on local authorities with all the ruthlessness of a Stalinist ukase. Schools with long records of achievement were academically vandalised to make way for geographical comprehensivisation - schools like Allan Glen's, Govan High, Hillhead High, St Mungo's Academy and Hamilton Grammar were systematically devastated by the juggernaut of egalitarian dogma.

Current policy is now lost in a maze of so-called initiatives which have been proliferating since the Scottish Executive first saw the light of day.

The very genesis of those initiatives is proof of the dissatisfaction with the comprehensive experiment which emerged within a decade of its inception. The independent sector, despite the removal of the assisted places scheme, continues to be oversubscribed as the flight of the middle classes from state to private education continues unabated.

Thus, the great comprehensive experiment of the 1970s has succumbed to market forces - those who have money use it to beat the system, and buy independent education or overpriced properties in certain areas. Parents on low or marginal incomes don't have the power to choose and must accept what is available in their own area. The result is a pattern of magnet schools, independent schools, run-of-the mill schools and sink schools concentrated in inner-city areas.

In England, the Government's answer is to set up so-called specialist schools which, as the centre-piece of Labour's policy of "diversity", will get bigger budgets from the Government. The expansion of such schools will merely accelerate the development of a two-tier system, since for "specialist" we should read "selective". Such schools take from the weakest schools by creaming off their brightest pupils and attracting the most assertive, better motivated parents. But at least that is an educational policy of sorts.

Here in Scotland, the Executive doesn't have a policy other than more fattening of the sacred cow of geographical comprehensives, and for parents and children more of the same diet they have been force-fed over the past 40 years. Sadly the Executive blindly endorses a comprehensive schooling based on rigid geographical zones. It is ideologically incapable of accepting that this must give way to knowledge clusters or learning communities.

Existing educational and community structures should be adapted to improve the experience children can derive from compulsory schooling. The clusters must be so devised that widely different schools are embraced within each defined learning community without geographical contiguity being the sole determinant.

Professor Eric Wilkinson's report on Glasgow City Council's "learning communities initiative" contains a brutal acknowledgement of the nature of under-attainment. Whoever emerges as Minister of Education after next Thursday's elections must pay more than lip-service to what Professor Wilkinson has had to say about underachievement in our schools.

This climate of underachievement cannot be altered without dislocating schools from their unsupportive community cultures. After all, that was the thinking behind grammar schools and senior secondary schools in the past - and for bright children from all backgrounds it proved to be one of the most successful policies ever devised. Where it was unsuccessful was in treating non-academic children as an underclass.

Existing schools which are recognised for their strengths must be made accessible to all who wish to send their children there. Through increased devolved management and targeted funding, schools should be allowed to develop these strengths so that within any learning community school A can be identified as being particularly strong in languages and humanities, school B in sciences, school C in technology and business studies, school D in assisted learning.

t would mean an extensive liberalisation of the curriculum, since such schools would be allowed to design their own curricula on the basis of their strengths and not have to offer all the subjects which have forced their way on to the curriculum in the past 20 years. It would also help to break down the invidious barrier between academic and vocational education by giving proper status and targeted funding to technology and commercial schools. HMI should be able to identify such schools. Once identified, they would be given the opportunity and additional resources to become the designated language school, or technology school, within a particular learning community.

It must be emphasised that we are not talking about a hierarchy of schools like beacon schools, specialist schools and technology colleges south of the border. All schools would offer a standard, basic curriculum. But, as designated schools, they would be allowed to devote more time and resources to their particular strengths, academic or vocational or special needs.

Such schools would be considerably smaller than present comprehensives resulting in smaller class sizes and the possibilities for more individual teacher attention.

Those who care about education in Scotland must seek to re-establish the philosophy of opportunity which has been sacrificed by dogma to the strait-jacket of illusory equality. The alternative to a radical new approach is to continue pouring money into maintaining a status quo where great numbers of young people are deprived by political dogma from accessing the means of developing their true, God-given talents and potential.

Tino Ferri is, until next week, executive member from Scotland for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

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