Labour's next step forward for pupils

15th June 2001 at 01:00
A system in which schools claim to be all-ability while being rejected by a large number of parents cannot last much longer, says Fred Forrester

SO the first post-devolution general election has re-elected Tony Blair on a manifesto commitment to raise the standards of all public services while not increasing the basic or higher rates of income tax or extending the scope of VAT. The electorate, while being less then enthusiastic about new Labour, firmly rejected the other parties.

The problems arising from devolution to Scotland and Wales are now being regarded as somewhat different from those foreseen by academic pundits. They are not focused so much on the line between devolved and reserved powers as on the ability of UK political parties, and in particular Labour, to deliver differentiated policies for England, Scotland and Wales. We should not be surprised at this. To the extent that parties have a political philosophy, that philosophy does not change because of a line on a map.

In a modern, presidential election campaign, based on television coverage and on the personalities of the leaders, the voter must choose one or other of the packages on offer, and the mandate produced by this process must to some extent be binding on the devolved administrations as well as Westminster.

Let us focus on one issue affecting the future of Scottish education - the nature of the comprehensive school. Labour's manifesto in Scotland concentrated on developing the individual talents of each pupil, on investments in capital projects through public private partnerships and on modernising the teaching profession. Diversity is raised in one context only, that of religious and cultural traditions.

The English manifesto, however, talked about every secondary school "having a distinct ethos or mission" and being "a centre of excellence", and we know from Tony Blair's speech to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in April that he has a vision of every secondary in England becoming specialist, at a cost of pound;1.2 billion per year, or 1.5 per cent of the total budgets for schools in England.

So how will the Scottish Executive handle this issue, given that Scotland will receive its due share of this money under the Barnett Formula? I would like to suggest that we respond to the challenge. We have dipped our toes in this area by having national specialist schools for music, dance and sport. There are national grant-aided special scools, which to all intents and purposes are in the public sector. Gaelic-medium education is provided in a number of centres on a non-catchment area basis.

Each authority could ensure that a range of specialisms was on offer. Within each city or large town pupils could opt for a particular specialism at no cost to the parents in terms of school transport. Schools would provide a core curriculum at S3 to S6, but specialisms such as modern languages, sciences, business studies, computing, music, sport would be an offer in one place only. This would have advantages in concentration of specialist staff and achievement of viable pupil numbers in a larger number of subjects, but I would never advocate it on these grounds alone.

It would, I believe, contribute to a breaking down of the school pecking order that is such a depressing feature of Scottish secondary education. The placing request system is used by parents to negate the distinctions derived from different forms of housing tenure. Aspiring parents from Drumchapel make requests for Bearsden Academy and secondary schools in East Renfrewshire are host to large numbers of refugees from the south of Glasgow. In Edinburgh, the schools that are seen to be most successful receive many of their pupils from other catchment areas. Indeed, it can be argued that the low percentage of Scots pupils in independent schools (about 4 per cent) is a direct result of this use of the placing system.

We must recognise that this momentum is not all negative. The influence of the home is vital in terms of achievement. That influence is exercised positively when parents weigh up the perceived merits of different schools and make a choice.

Specialisms not directly associated with general academic ability, such as music or sport, could, if successfully pursued, turn out to be an antidote to the elitist assumption, deeply embedded in Scottish education, that the most able children will be the high achievers. Far from destroying comprehensive education, specialism at upper secondary could be the saviour of it. An unreformed system, in which many schools claim to be comprehensive while being rejected by a large number of the aspiring parents in their catchment areas, cannot survive for much longer.

Pressures from south of the border and within Scotland itself will lead to changes.

Fred Forrester is former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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