The end of history and the growth of Spanish Gaelic
Hi! It's me again, third year in a row. It's beginning to feel like a habit! I thought I'd vary my annual report a bit by making it a "last year in retrospect" - some might even say "history" - just to prove how much I value the subject.
... which brings me neatly to the curriculum review. After all the excitement of the launch of ACE (A Curriculum for Excellence - get it?), I thought it wise to re-bury the review under a small programme board.
Just to make sure that nothing leaked out, Gill Robinson, the head of curriculum and assessment, went round speaking to everyone in "strictest confidence". It's amazing how much people respect the "in confidence" bit.
The plan worked a treat and nothing leaked out to the press until The TESS got hold of some story in November. Eleven months without a headline - magic.
Mark you, it might have something to do with the fact that, as the proposals are still at the very complex stage, no one was quite sure what exactly they were. Moreover an "exclusive" about merging Standard grade and National Qualifications is hardly the stuff of a Scotsman headline. Where's the shock in it? It's been on the agenda for years. No, in the end, it was a casual comment of mine about teaching subjects - but not necessarily in subject-labelled time slots - that got everyone worked up, with the historians claiming that I had pronounced the end of history. I thought Francis Fukuyama was the one who'd done that.
And I fear the whole curriculum project took a bit of a knocking when Graham Donaldson told the EIS conference that, while HMIE would always encourage well-judged curricular and pedagogical change, they would still ensure that youngsters' educational experience was not jeopardised by innovation.
Talk about giving a green light to the no-change Neanderthals!
To judge by some headlines, our schools are not much different from central Baghdad, with pupils rampaging out of control and attacking teachers. Over the summer, I began to think the teachers' unions were running a competition at their conferences to see who could produce the most lurid stories of pupil violence.
The press rose to the bait and had several field days with headlines such as: "Teachers attacked 34 times a day in Scots' schools". The only thing that this headline demonstrates is the sub-editor's problems with English grammar. It's not surprising that we find it hard to recruit new teachers when it sounds as though they need flak jackets rather more than a piece of chalk.
Anyway, I've done my best. I've given a further pound;35 million over three years for extra support staff and offered support to a host of local authority schemes such as Falkirk's plans for special support bases for the most troublesome pupils, Glasgow's plans for parent agreements and various schemes for restorative justice. I think my favourite is Aberdeen's idea of police officers based in schools.
However, this is a no-win situation because the teachers see the solution as smaller classes and will not give up fuelling the headlines until they get their way. Cue to me - set up a working party to look at smaller classes and buy a bit of time.
The other side of the coin is the whole child protection business. This sees children, not as out-of-control monsters but as at-risk victims. Any teacher who so much as lays a hand on one to stop a fight is in danger of being charged with assault, while parents who want to run school discos have to undergo police checks to find out if they are secretly dangerous paedophiles. Teachers now want protection against prosecution by children.
Meantime, we're being asked to listen to children more and give them a bigger say in decisions. The Scottish Council Foundation has even suggested that they should be involved in school budgeting. I can see a sudden surge in school orders for games consoles at the expense of maths textbooks.
I find myself between a rock and a hard place on this one. As a Highland list MSP, my political instincts are to protect small schools. But, as a Minister, I understand the economic realities posed by half-empty school buildings. The Accounts Commission got a little too close to the truth when it criticised the independent councillors in Shetland for being more concerned with staying in power than in doing the right thing and closing schools.
Talking of Shetland, it didn't help when a mother forced the school in Papa Stour to close by withdrawing her children, the only pupils, after she fell out with the teacher because he gave evidence against her husband in a dog muck throwing incident - an interesting insight into the frictions in small communities. Where are your ASBOs when you need them?
Meantime, rural parents are keeping such a close tally on what's happening that they petitioned the Scottish Parliament in July, complaining that, since I'd issued guidelines on school closures, 68 have come under threat of closure (please note "threat of closure", not "have been closed").
Admittedly, some authorities do not handle this well. They should copy Highland's policy of "mothballing", where schools are not closed, just not used. Excellent!
I can see I shall have to issue more guidelines and maybe refer the whole matter on to Graham Donaldson et al at HMIE. That has the advantage of putting the decision in a safe pair of hands and taking the heat off both me and local councillors.
Health, fitness andsex education
We seem to be making great progress with improving school meals. It was rather satisfying to discover, when Jamie Oliver made the issue high-profile, that we hugely outspend English councils on meals. Mark you, there's rather less evidence that the children are as enthusiastic about healthy eating. Glasgow has taken to bribing them with iPods. Makes a school meal rather expensive, I'd have thought, and I'm not sure what the kids do once they have their iPod - go back to burgers and chips, probably.
Oh, by the way, can I make it clear, when it was announced the Executive was on target to meet its fitness goals by 2007, that referred to us - as in "here in Victoria Quay", where everyone continues to rush around on bikes? It did not apply to Scotland as a whole. I just thought I'd clear that up.
Sex education hasn't caused too many problems this year, but that's probably because we have buried it in a sexual health strategy which takes an "abstinence-plus" approach - don't do it but, if you must, do it safely.
Actually, with the dramatic fall in the number of births, perhaps we should back-pedal on the abstinence part.
Freedom of information
Having finally got rid of league tables, we now have a new bete noir - freedom of information. Whoever decided that was a good idea? It seems that your average journalist, short of an exclusive, lobs in a freedom of information request and then publishes the result as though it's the product of a lengthy investigation. Usually, the most they've had to do is write a letter to each education authority - a total of 32 in all. Big deal!
It would be slightly better if the authorities were more on the ball. When The Sunday Times went looking for 5-14 test results, Glasgow forgot to give its good level E and F figures, so ended up making its schools look really bad, with "shock-horror" headlines. When Glasgow rushed out amended figures, this warranted only a paragraph at the bottom of page 20.
So when it was our turn to publish the absence figures, we tried to avoid bad headlines by giving more detail than anyone wanted; figures for sickness, truancy, family trauma etc. It was the figures for holidays in term-time that grabbed the press attention; at least, we escaped being in the line of fire and parents would never think the criticism applied to them personally. Indeed, a few days later Edinburgh police found about 30 youngsters out Christmas shopping with their parents.
Given the amount of money we've poured into it, it's rather depressing to find from research that small businesses are largely unaware of our Determined to Succeed policy and that the word "enterprise" doesn't play well with pupils. Apparently, they don't understand it. Mark you, I think the problem is that too many schools still focus on the "make and sell"
view of enterprise and do not realise that it's about taking risks, and applies to all pupils.
Perhaps it would help if we dropped the word "enterprise". We could always run a competition to come up with a new word.
Talking of research, how does this grab you? The Equal Opportunities Commission found that trades such as construction and child-minding are strongly gender stereotyped? Knock me down with a piece of white heather.
However, rather more helpfully, other researchers have established that it doesn't matter whether boys are taught by men or by women; they do equally well - and presumably badly - under either. Just as well, given the preponderance of women teachers.
As you know, Gaelic education is dear to my heart, so I was delighted when the Gaelic Bill was passed and we got the green light for moving ahead.
Trouble is, you can't magic Gaelic teachers out of a generation that didn't have the benefit of Gaelic education. And it didn't help when a councillor from my part of the world - although admittedly from Nairn - said Gaelic-medium education was a waste of money when Gaelic was not the language of the home or community. Friends like those...
Still, it was pretty inspiring to read that, through the wonders of modern technology, a Gaelic speaker who lived in Spain was able to deliver lessons to pupils in places such as Plockton, Tain and Cumbernauld. I'm wondering if there's a message in this for us: rather than working in a building designed by a man from Barcelona, perhaps we should all just go to Barcelona.
Teachers' pay and conditions
Praise be! I think we're on the last stretch of the McCrone deal. There are, of course, residual complaints about the changes in management structure, the fact that new teachers can't get jobs exactly where they want them after their probationary year and, most recently, that the cut in class contact time has caused an increased burden on headteachers.
Then we find ourselves in the classic Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, we're criticised for not training enough teachers to meet our proposed cuts in class sizes and, on the other, everyone's complaining schools can't cope with training all the extra students. So which is the problem - not having the teachers or asking the schools to help with the training?
Being blamed for every outcome reminds me of being a parent, talking of whom: Parents...
... make even the most out-of-control pupils look like a bunch of pussycats. As you know, we've been working on improving parental participation in schools for some time. Last year, the focus was on information leaflets for parents; this year, we moved on to the parental involvement bill.
The team in here worked their socks off to get the two parent groups - SSBA and SPTC - on side. Aware of the "sensitivities" between them, my people even took the time needed to meet them separately It was all going swimmingly; we had an endorsement from Alan Smith, president of the SSBA, to add to our press release for the Bill when, at precisely the wrong time, he was ousted as president in what I hope was a bloodless coup. His place was taken by Caroline Vass who proceeded to breathe fire and brimstone on our proposals, to the joy of the assembled hacks. Moreover, SSBA's opposition was made volubly clear to the team when they went out on the road in a series of consultations to promote the Bill.
But he who shouts loudest is not always right or, as the Gaels say, chan i bho's airde geum as mo bainne! Calm has been restored, thanks to a lot of hard work by yours truly and the guys in the office. At the education committee hearings, Caroline said she supported the principle of the Bill, so that's good. Meantime, of course, it was made clear to me that I'd have to keep the other side - SPTC - on-message. I was "persuaded" to give up a precious Saturday morning to go to their annual conference which, in turn, means I'll probably have to give up another Saturday morning to attend the SSBA meeting. I tell you, Jack, dealing with parents is more difficult than dealing with the most recalcitrant bunch of kids.
Colleges And finally, a brief word about the college sector, not really my responsibility but I thought you might like to be reminded that it actually is a beacon of success - even although the Lib Dems are in charge there.
Most of the colleges seem to have their books back in balance (and we'll gloss over the problems faced by West Lothian College as the result of their PPP-built facility). They are getting better at resolving issues without going to industrial tribunals. However, what I like best are all the mergers - seems to be something of a trend. Why is it that colleges can merge without any fuss but, if you try to do that with schools, all hell breaks out?
Oh well, Jack, it was a good year and we ended on a really high note with very positive feedback on the Assessment is for Learning programme. It sometimes felt like hard work. Tony Blair might complain of the scars on his back from dealing with public services; he should look at my back sometime! But then, cha shoirbh triubhas a chur air cat, as the Gaels have it.
Bliadhna mhath ur, Peter