Labour isn't thinking

7th March 1997 at 00:00
This time the comrades have cast themselves in the role of Genghis Khan. Labour has unveiled plans to introduce unannounced swoop visits by HMI, the sacking of inadequate teachers and heads, the closure of failing schools, the "forcing" of schools to meet "tough" national standards. There must be bafflement in the nation's staffrooms. This is no surprise visit by Chris Woodhead, HM Chief Inspector south of the border, galloping across the Cheviots with platoons of inspector squaddies bent on bringing us troublesome Scots into line with a millennium version of scholastic fire and sword.

Neither are these the wild utterances of some right-wing Secretary of State. Michael Forsyth prefers to talk about excellent school awards, and continues to choose the more consensual path. Certainly his policy intentions sound more persuasive. They may be unsexy, but build on current positive initiatives which are actually succeeding rather well: the extension of ethos networks, the spread of good practice and school self-evaluation using performance indicators.

Not that I imagine, in practical terms, there would under Labour be any immediate or real danger of sackings or closures to non-achieving teachers, heads or schools. Labour intends to reduce parental influence by the abolition of school boards, and in their place create for each school a potential and costly nightmare. A "commission" would comprise councillors, social work persons, health persons, local authority administrators, representatives of industry - and perhaps parents, too, if they see the point. At best a talking shop, at worst togetherness gone mad. Pity the poor headteacher trying to keep the show on the road.

This unwieldy bureaucratic animal, described as an "overarching body to oversee developments in the school", sounds terminally constipated before it starts. Its potential to generate mountains of paper and numberless meetings is in the best European tradition. It should mean that not too many "targeted" heads or teachers get within a mile of receiving their P45.

It is a mean-minded document with an ironically amusing streak. Naturally no credit for the Government at any level. However, spoonfuls of praise are generously ladled out to Labour councils for implementing the extensive raft of Government policies with which the People's Party now wishes to identify itself. There is a schizophrenic quality about the paper. Decisiveness is barely skin deep, and certainly won't apply to parents on choice of school. Scottish Labour believes that parents have a "right to express a preference" (big deal that). Nevertheless Labour knows best where your child will go. (Shades of the grey municipal determinism of yesteryear?) Having abolished the assisted places scheme it certainly will not be into the independent sector, which educates the children of some Glasgow Labour councillors who choose to pay fees.

Labour plans to take action to ensure that some schools do not become "unfashionable" and "underused". Weasel words those. Reminds me of Lothian's education committee in the early eighties, solemnly debating the need to bus children from one area to another to "improve the social mix". Labour has an answer to this little problem. Put back the clock, dig out and dust down the socialist-communitarian arguments of a bygone era. The prose underlines the million philosphic miles that separate Scottish Labour's leaders from Messrs Blair and Blunkett. I quote: "Labour's pursuit of excellence will make every school a 'good' school, and the desire for placing requests will consequently diminish." Try that one in Islington.

Excellence by committee diktat and swollen bureaucracy never happened before. Give us the real world.

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