Excellence entails selection

19th July 1996 at 01:00
Some call it another historic betrayal - for devolution under Labour is surely lost. Tony Blair's double-question referendum shows clear evidence of withdrawal symptoms from John Smith's vision. The Nationalists rejoice, for sensible politicians know that asking voters to favour taxation is not normal behaviour for winning hearts and minds.

New Labour's spokespersons have often said that a parliament without tax-raising powers is fundamentally weak and unstable. Now they offer this option. Those with a feeling for history will recollect that Labour has several times this century used the occasional hint of devolution for its own political ends. Recall how home rule Bills were introduced in 1924 and 1927 and then talked out by Labour?

Remember Labour's home rule plan for postwar Scotland? After the 1945 Attlee landslide, this was quietly shelved by an openly unionist Labour government. Likewise the referendum of 1979 served its temporary purpose of outflanking the SNP. A multi-option referendum (independence, devolution or the status quo) became short-term Labour policy in 1992, in reaction to its own rebels joining with SNP to form Scotland United. That policy too served a passing purpose in reuniting the party.

The comrades' sacred cows are, of course, being slaughtered faster than you can pronounce EU directive. Devolution is now likely to join Clause 4 and comprehensive schools in the Blairist policy shredder. The new pragmatic approach ensures that English voters are sensibly offered by Labour only more voter-friendly borrowed policies. Selection, excellence and the encouragement of grammar schools come to mind. What of the Scots? We may not want grammar schools, but we do aspire to excellence. Though it is not yet politically correct here to criticise the comprehensive model, parents are probably about ready to accept a Scottish initiative based on more selection in-school. Which brings me to the brief term-end announcement by Raymond Robertson, just possibly overlooked in the profession's rush for swimsuits and sun oil. A major White Paper on Scottish education is planned in the autumn.

What will it bring? I have no crystal ball, but here is a wish list. And before you accuse me of Anglo-imports, my first suggestion is based on only one strand of the new English White Paper on self-government for schools: a proposal which has relevance here. Heads and boards might consider the suggestions for increasing local decision-making and financial flexibility. English schools will have 95 per cent of their budget (presently 85 per cent). This means an extra Pounds 1.3 billion within the formal delegation requirement, representing Pounds 200 more per pupil.

Undelegated areas? Capital spending, special educational needs, transport, pupil support; with education authorities to retain defined responsibilities in quality assurance. Devolved school management in Scotland is a major and successful reform which could with all-round advantage to pupils be taken further. Budget control has proved popular with Scottish heads: who would now go back to the old ways? Local decision-making could become addictive.

While on the subject of empowering heads, our White Paper should allow them the last word on potential staff. How can heads develop a school ethos and staff team without total control over who comes into and stays in that team? Line management in schools should mean just that. If the Government really wishes to free up educational funding for use on children it might also tackle the anomalies of Scotland's outdated conditions of service, and top-heavy promoted post structure in Scottish schools. Do we really need eight levels of staff, from head to probationer?

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