The issues and the answers

6th July 2001 at 01:00
A new series of titles underlines the need to establish ways in which a civic view becomes part of the decision-making process, says Willis Pickard.

OME years ago the Scottish Academic Press produced a useful little series on contemporary issues in education. The publisher has now been retitled Dunedin Academic Press and a new series has started with a trio of titles under the same editors, Gordon Kirk of Edinburgh University and Bob Glaister of the Open University. The issues explored are well chosen for their topicality. Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, looks at how the Scottish Parliament will handle its largest spending function and how education will be affected by proximity to a legislative, scrutinising and admonitory body.

Gordon Kirk himself has, unsurprisingly, chosen teacher education as his special subject. He completed the text before the McCrone agreement paved the way for changes in both initial teacher education and continuing professional development but all the challenges which the settlement throws up are clearly laid out. The third volume is about multiculturalism which Nigel Grant, former professor of education at Glasgow University, has long championed and which gains new significance with the unhappy experiences of asylum-seekers in a country that used to pride itself on accepting incomers.

Earlier this year the Parliament showed itself at its best when MSPs held a debate on special education, considering a report commissioned by one of their own specialist committees. Without party bickering they looked at the implications of teaching children with special needs in mainstream schools and the case for supporting separate schools with the right facilities and expertise. The MSPs' interest mirrors that of the Executive. There is no way in which the former Scottish Office, much less the Westminster Parliament, could have shown such involvement.

For Lindsay Paterson this episode must have been reassuring. Long an advocate of self-government, he makes clear his concern lest the Parliament divorces itself from the society from which it springs. Education has found strength in its own community, not least in resisting the incursions of government - remember the teacher-parent alliance which defeated the first attempts at national primary testing.

By their power and proximity the Parliament and Executive are bound to challenge the autonomy of that community, and therefore the need to establish and develop ways in which a civic view becomes part of the policy-making process is paramount. Since Professor Paterson's book was written, the influence of the inspectorate as part of the Executive but seemingly independent of ministers has been reined back. That, too, will give confidence that central authority is not to go unchallenged in the new constitutional framework. There are signs of fresh confidence in schools and education authorities.

Many of the most fruitful innovations such as early intervention have their origin in local initiatives. National projects like new community schools are free to develop in a variety of ways rather than to a rigid, centrally devised pattern. Teachers who feel in greater control will be happier and more creative. Their own education as professionals takes on new significance, and Professor Kirk is long experienced in the debates about the relationship between theory and practice, technical competence and individual inspiration.

For many teachers, academics are as prone as politicians to add to the classroom burden. Nigel Grant would like community languages such as Urdu , Punjabi and Chinese to be available as well as European languages including Gaelic. But he is realist enough to accept the practical limitations. The same goes for another aspect of multiculturalism - education for tolerance and against racist behaviour. No add-on is needed to the curriculum. Only the input to existing teaching needs to be changed, alongside a recognition that multicultural education is not dependent on the presence of pupils from ethnic minorities. It should be a requirement for all.

Looking at the Parliament's own early preoccupations, one could add another area where teachers need encouragement - in implementing the hard-won agreement on what to teach the children about sex.

Willis Pickard is former editor of The TES Scotland.

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