Don't be too busy to have an opinion

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Three new titles are part of a useful series encouraging debate on Scottish education, says Douglas Osler. But who will read them?

It is a sad reflection of the current approach to staff development that three new books are unlikely to be found in teachers' briefcases and they are more likely to be used by later researchers or by students.

The Political Context of Education After Devolution underlines the need to evaluate the ways in which devolution has altered the education scene, but it may be too soon to do other than record events.

This is not a history nor do the authors claim it is. Their sources are newspaper reports and the archives of the Association of Directors of Education - and it shows. That means quite a bit of recording hearsay and perpetuating myths.

For example, it repeats the erroneous claim that HM Inspectorate of Education does not advise on policy any more, despite that being the first of the agency's stated objectives. Newspapers at the time got that wrong, mistaking a withdrawal from leading development programmes for discontinuing policy advice. No minister can afford to ignore the information and evaluation coming from the inspectorate.

The book lacks evidence from those involved at the time. For civil servants, the main changes were to do with the closeness of ministers as education policy had always been devolved. A cabinet minister and a deputy had replaced a junior minister who looked after industry as well.

The new ministers worked along the corridor instead of in London and brought their own network of contacts and advisers. Legislative time was more easily available and the new committees gave detailed, if inadequate, attention to educational matters as Westminster committees never did. These were the realities and this book lacks that perspective. Perhaps it is just too soon to expect considered evaluation.

The book on Gaelic Medium Education has, unlike the others, two editors who provide a summary chapter to four essays written by experts. This really is an important chronicling of the beginnings of Gaelic-medium education as well as bringing perspective to the Scottish experience through studies in the Basque region, Wales and Ireland.

The statistical information showing that most Gaelic learners now come from non-Gaelic speaking homes will be used by those opposed to the cost and emphasis on Gaelic. While all the writers are involved in Gaelic education in one way or another, there is no special pleading and an acceptance that much has been done by government and local authorities. A constructive approach is taken towards the problems still to be faced.

In a country which has, as the book puts it, "an awkward relationship with language", we should note the Gaelic experience and learn from it. In that context, attempts to keep Gaelic alive and growing can be seen as an experiment in language learning with wide applications. That should widen the appeal of this volume.

The third title in the series is The Chartered Teacher. This is written by its two editors, who had some involvement with the planning stages of the chartered teacher proposals. It is suppor-tive of the idea and provides a useful account of the way in which chartered teacher status has developed.

Its first question is: "Where did the idea of the chartered teacher originate?" The authors suggest that it developed naturally from the context of staff development and teacher training but, as so often, the answer is much more casual than that. Chartered teacher status was first suggested in a list of possible policies put forward to a new minister. He liked it, it was proposed to the McCrone committee and the rest is history, carefully recorded in this volume.

Of course, if you want to drive on a motorway you don't need to know how it was built, and if you want to become a chartered teacher you will probably be too busy to read this account of the scheme's origins. Nevertheless, there will need to be a second volume about the chartered teacher some years on, and its authors will find this a valuable foundation.

They will need to cope with the rather dense language; we are told that "the CT has a disposition to improve on past performance" and the book refers to "a reductionist account of teaching" and to "current conceptualisations". No Plain English Award there.

The chartered teacher development is important and will give teachers real professional status as it enhances their skills and updates their knowledge.

This volume seems wisely to dismiss the naive notion of parallel tracks, one to chartered teacher status in the classroom and another to senior management. Future leaders should have the best qualifications available.

If I was making an appointment to senior management I would look for a chartered teacher - and so it will be.

The Political Context of Education After Devolution, by John Dobie and Willis Pickard. Gaelic Medium Education, edited by Matthew MacIver and Margaret Nicolson. The Chartered Teacher, by Gordon Kirk, Walter Beveridge and Iain Smith. Each title is published by the Dunedin Academic Press.

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