Dust settles after a whirlwind start by Labour's new broom

22nd August 1997 at 01:00
As schools return for the new session, we review Brian Wilson's first three months as Education Minister and the impact on schools.

In his first outing as Education Minister on May 17, Brian Wilson set a new agenda for Scottish education when he offered the school boards' annual conference in Glasgow a "pragmatic and commonsense" way ahead. "You only need permanent revolution if there is something rotten in the system," Mr Wilson said, backing up his fresh start with a commitment to rid teachers of bureaucracy and impediments to carrying out their job effectively.

He could not have made a more promising start after 18 years of Conservative rule. "All I want to do really is to create a a structure, or leave alone a structure, in which teachers can get on and do the job. I want to rebuild the atmosphere and ensure Scottish education is something we can be very proud of," the 48-year-old minister stated.

His children go to state schools and his wife is a school board chairman. Consultation on school board reform is planned this autumn after Labour promised a review. The minister has not ruled out a proposal to replace boards with wider "school commissions".

But the "pragmatic" minister was soon under the cosh after agreeing to keep nursery vouchers for another year, despite a manifesto commitment to abolish them. In Wales, vouchers were ripped up immediately. Scotland was too far down the administrative road to recall them, Mr Wilson said. The Liberal Democrats and SNP were quick to condemn his response.

A Government statement on plans for replacing vouchers is due in September, followed by a consultation period.

Labour's manifesto commitment to abolish the Pounds 14 million assisted places scheme was ratified in the Queen's Speech and opting out was struck off the agenda, although it retains a legislative base. The precise position of the country's two opted-out schools, Dornoch Academy and St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane, remains uncertain.

Both are set to return to the local authority fold along with Fort William primary, which was granted self-governing status and was due to begin its new life this session.

Labour reaffirmed its pledge to spend assisted places cash on reducing class sizes in primary 1-primary 3 and Mr Wilson was quick to claim that this would be possible within the lifetime of the current Parliament as assisted places were phased out. Others were less certain.

Opposition critics continued to attack Labour for failing to support policies with funds but within three weeks of taking over Pounds 4 million was found "from good housekeeping" to boost early intervention strategies previously championed by Michael Forsyth, the former Scottish Secretary, who set aside Pounds 9 million over three years. Of the Pounds 4 million, Pounds 500, 000 is earmarked for special education. Donald Gorrie, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, described the intervention money as "piffling".

The Pounds 3 million for school-based initiatives on exclusions was to stay, Mr Wilson announced. The minister won further plaudits by confirming a further year's delay to August 1999 in the introduction of the Higher Still reforms, a move greeted with relief by teacher unions, headteachers and local authorities. So far Pounds 14 million has gone on developing the framework.

By the end of May, Mr Wilson was steadily tidying up the remnants of Conservative policy and ditched proposed compulsory, external tests in the first two years of secondary school, which were due to be piloted next spring. It emerged that the Pounds 4 million for reading and writing strategies in the early years of primary was transferred from the planned budget for external marking in S1 and S2. Ill winds and all that.

Yet as the minister absorbed right-wing criticism for going soft on teachers and standards, he warned that ineffective performance would not be tolerated, but without embracing the "name-shame" tactics of publicly identifying failing schools. He said he did not want confrontation with teachers but made it clear "standards must be set and measured to ensure all pupils are stretched to their capacity". The HMI quality drive was back in high profile.

June began with the axing of more Conservative policy, this time compulsory appraisal. Mr Wilson invited the National Co-ordinating Committee for Staff Development of Teachers, chaired by Maggi Allan, director of education in South Lanarkshire, to review guidelines. He has now revealed that he wants all teachers to be appraised within two years and reappraised at two-year intervals if the Scottish Office succeeds in implementing a voluntary scheme. Councils have insisted that appraisal must be separate from procedures to deal with incompetent teachers and administration must be kept to a minimum. Councils are reviewing their procedures and are likely to have local schemes approved by the Scottish Office next April ready to start in the following session.

Turning the focus elsewhere, Mr Wilson backed the previous government's proposals to spend Pounds 1 million of lottery money on grants for school sport. Pilot projects will take place in West and East Lothian.

The results of the Third International Maths and Science study, in mid-June, brought uncomfortable news on standards. A Scottish survey of performance in English, under the the Assessment of Achievement Programme, confirmed weaknesses in primary 4, primary 7 and secondary 2. Mr Wilson signalled no let-up in the drive to improve teaching.

Meanwhile, pursuing a personal interest, he overturned the Inspectorate's opposition to Gaelic-medium education in secondaries, lent support to an anti-bigotry campaign in Glasgow and backed the continuing two-year programme aimed at reinforcing positive behaviour in schools, as concern over bullying intensified.

Mr Wilson stepped into the row at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway by ordering an HMI inquiry into guidance and anti-bullying policies after a pupil suicide.

Government plans for a "national grid for learning" were boosted by a Pounds 4 million initiative to put the Internet into schools.

In his first foray into further education, Mr Wilson resolved to reduce "over-vigorous" competition between colleges in his own Cunninghame North constituency. He also approved a Pounds 15 million state-of-the art college at Livingston, to be financed under what used to be called the private finance initiative, now renamed public-private partnerships.

Back on the school front, the end of June saw more disheartening news about a modern languages crisis in Glasgow. At the same time, primary schools were effectively told to introduce baseline testing for five-year-olds, one of the least heralded but significant announcements of the first three months. The ostensible purpose is to check on the progress of the early intervention programme, which was further boosted to Pounds 24 million over the next three years. The Government is finding Pounds 20 million, the local authorities Pounds 4 million. All councils will benefit in the literacy battle.

As schools broke up for the summer holidays, Mr Wilson returned to the standards theme by announcing that every primary and secondary would be expected to meet "demanding and achievable" performance targets from next year. A new national action group, chaired by the minister, which meets next month for the first time, will ensure targets are met and will produce an annual report. This, he said, was not the "big stick" approach.

Hopes are pinned on a rolling programme of targets to raise levels of achievement and expectation, so that problems in maths, science, writing and modern languages can be picked up earlier. The new targets will be based on 5-14 attainment levels, Standard grades and Highers and will be agreed with schools and councils. They will have "proper regard" to a school's existing level of performance and the nature of its catchment area. These will form the basis of Labour's long-term commitment to personal learning plans for pupils.

The Chancellor's first Budget in early July brought surprising news of a funding windfall. An extra Pounds 8.9 million will be spent on buildings and computers this year and a further Pounds 26.7 million in each of the next four years. A further Pounds 89 million is being spent next year on Government priorities such as the early years, classroom resources and the raising of standards.

With holidays in full swing and exam results imminent, the Government sprang a major shock by announcing an end to student grants and the introduction of tuition fees as the Dearing and Garrick committees produced plans for the reform of higher education. This cued the most stinging criticism of policy. Mr Wilson followed up the Sutherland inquiry into teacher training in the UK, contained in the Dearing review, by calling for a report from the Scottish Teacher Education Committee. The report will examine strategic direction in teacher training and the over-provision of centres. Early next year there are likely to be guidelines to ensure new teachers have an emphasis on reading, writing and maths during their training.

As Parliament broke up, Mr Wilson, on the back foot on student funding, fell into line with moves south of the border on failing schools by announcing action on removing incompetent teachers. Councils are hastily devising plans and will report shortly to the Scottish Office which intends to make a further statement in late autumn.

The minister's first 100 days ended with tough Scottish Office guidance to stamp out the non-recording of informal exclusions and the realisation that nursery vouchers did not mean nursery places. Mr Wilson appealed for councils to work together with voluntary and private providers to create more places for four-year-olds. A statement on the new pre-school arrangements to replace vouchers from August next year is expected in September.

As schools return this week, the agenda for the full Parliament is now clear. By the end of this year, the Scottish Office and councils will have to decide how to spend the extra Pounds 89 million on revenue and capital projects. Raising standards will be top priority.

In the meantime, schools can expect consultation on headteacher qualifications and the S1S2 curriculum, currently being reviewed by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum as well as the subject of a forthcoming HMI report. Schools will also have to face up to deficiencies in key subject areas.

Decisions on class sizes and twin-track promotion to retain "good" teachers in the classroom are likely to be handed to the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, which means they will require union backing. Initiatives on exclusions, positive discipline and early intervention will be closely monitored over the next three years.

Mr Wilson has turned his attention to some 20 policy areas in his tough but tender approach. The listening minister is now taking action.

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