Enough pidgin education

11th July 2008 at 01:00
As the Scottish Parliament shuts up for summer and the school holidays become a reality, erstwhile political leaders Wendy Alexander (pictured) and Nicol Stephen have time to reflect on what might have been
As the Scottish Parliament shuts up for summer and the school holidays become a reality, erstwhile political leaders Wendy Alexander (pictured) and Nicol Stephen have time to reflect on what might have been.

A debate will follow as to who should replace them, but I don't see education figuring heavily in any of the political machinations. Blair's mantra of the three EEEs now seems a generation ago - and the idea of using education as an issue to enervate and inspire the electorate must, to many, seem like a cynical ploy if not a cruel joke.

Now and again, an education minister - such as Cathy Jamieson - will take the brave step of trying to encourage a public debate, but these are doomed to be captured by the specialists and the single-issue groups who speak in jargonese, laced with acronyms, building a wall between the professionals and the public, the latter becoming inhibited, feeling out of their depth and ill-informed.

I don't doubt the sincerity of past ministers such as Galbraith, McConnell and Peacock - or the current minister Fiona Hyslop - but they have all failed to move education higher up the agenda. For an outside observer, or even a parent, there seems to be little educational debate going on.

Issues such as baccalaureates, cluster groups and professional development make most people's eyes glaze over. The topics that parents and the wider public want to hear about can often be quite different.

When I was an education spokesman, I found discipline, the quality of teaching, discipline, the fabric of local schools and, yes, discipline, came higher. Speaking to teachers in the staffroom, rather than at union conferences, strangely elicited the same priorities.

Attempts by myself and my colleagues to empower parents and give schools more devolved management - so that they might see the issues that mattered to them treated more seriously - were doomed to be too abstract and removed to find sufficient support. Submerged in the same educational broth that turned people off, the idea of giving headteachers, teachers and parents more control brought risks, challenges and responsibilities that many were unwilling to countenance.

An example of this was the language you had to employ - say "education" and say "schools" and you get two different responses, the first respectful but silent and the latter interested and forthcoming.

The conversation about education, conducted in two languages like American English and British English, related but often different in meaning, is for me why so much of the detailed discussion of educational issues by experts goes above the heads of the public. The media and the politicians scramble to find ways of bridging this gap and, unsurprisingly, settle for slogans about class sizes, discipline and spending - without enough thought about the detail and what it means in practice.

The single outcome agreement between the minority SNP Scottish Government and Stirling Council, issued last week, is a good example. Targets for pupils of "no more than 20 per cent travelling to school by car or van" will be laughed at if anyone reads it. How is this to be achieved? Who is going to enable it, police it, and what does it mean for schools?

The document may be 106 pages but tables and charts about making Stirling a place where lifelong learning is valued is the language of bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, professionals, politicians and the people they serve will talk in different languages to each other - their own forms of pidgin education - is there a political leader who can remedy this? Can education truly become an issue that matters enough for our leaders to run with it and run on it? It would be nice to think so.

Brian Monteith was a former Tory education spokesman.

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