Her face doesn't fit New Labour

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
How can it be that one of the most able local politicians on the Scottish educational scene, the experienced chair of a large council and Cosla's education spokeswoman, has been rejected for Labour's Holyrood list? It raises the suspicion that folk with a visionary view and a mind to speak out are not currently on line. Perhaps Blair's babes are to be replicated by Dewar's dupes.

Elizabeth Maginnis presides over an authority which sees 25 per cent of its catchment choosing the independent sector. In the face of that challenge she has shown willing to consider the simple marketing facts of educational life.

What lessons can be learned from the fee paying sector to help council schools meet parental preferences? Selective schools? One-sex schools? Centres of specialised excellence?

Last year Maginnis was reviled for stating that sixth form colleges might play a future Scottish role. She has now paid the price for appearing to suggest that the comprehensive concept should not be set in weeping municipal concrete.

Some readers might imagine that the demise of the assisted places scheme had signalled increased marginalisation, if not terminal difficulty, for the independent sector. One year on, however, it is clear that some manifestos have the lifespan of a secondhand envelope.

Here is another example of a Tony policy being enthusiastically developed and indeed more effectively promoted under Labour - in England. Far from incipient demise, the Government apparently envisages independent schools playing an increasingly central and constructive part in English education.

This is an area of education policy currently little discussed around here. New Labour's modernising aspirations show few signs of improving overmuch on traditional Scottish local government attitudes.

In England Government is proffering the pragmatic hand of friendship to the independent sectors - Mr Blair is nothing if not realistic. In the cause of driving up standards, the politics of envy and division have sensibly been jettisoned and replaced by a stated willingness to learn and share.

Thus in recent months Stephen Byers, schools standards minister, made exceedingly friendly noises to the Girls' Schools Association, representing 230 top schools. And the Government has set up a link-building Advisory Group on IndependentState Partnerships.

Last month a pilot package of support to projects was announced, aiming to "break down traditional barriers" between schools. Derided by those suspicious of any project benefiting a minority of schools, this venture nevertheless illustrates a real desire by Government to nudge the sectors towards co-operative action, not least in the under-explored area of academic links.

The Independent Schools' Council has just produced a survey of links and joint activities under the title "Good Neighbours". Most of these, it has to be said, are safely in traditional areas of sport, music and community activity. Three quarters of independent schools are alleged to be in such links.

In Scotland there is no sign of parallel Government activity. But great scope for mutually beneficial cross-sectoral partnerships undoubtedly exists, for example in facing the uncertain requirements of future Advanced Higher provision.

Edinburgh has established regular working links with Merchant Company schools only. Elsewhere in Scotland independent schools and their partnership potential continue to be invisible.

It is a pity really, for one lesson most independents have successfully learned is that shedding bureaucratic layers can concentrate resources on more and better teachers in front of children. However, with the growing possibility of a more left-wing Scottish Parliament, the current likelihood remains limboland. Political inertia or downright animosity will probably continue to hold sway.

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