Labour's shake-up gets a tinge of tartan

11th July 1997 at 01:00
There is a difference between saying that schools must look to standards and suggesting that teachers are falling down on the job. Therefore criticism of the Scottish Education Minister because he does not arm himself with the draconian measures available to his counterpart south of the border is wide of the mark.

For years everyone agreed that Scottish education did not have the difficulties afflicting some English schools and therefore did not need to import solutions born of Tory ideology. Simply because a new administration at the Department for Education and Employment is tackling its problems afresh is no reason for suddenly declaring the English agenda better than the Scottish.

Brian Wilson wants schools to have targets for improvement. He thinks they can be introduced without deciding that some schools are irredeemably failing and need to be run by imported staff. In the much larger English system, where there have been cases of poor performance, David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, believes that he needs firmer powers. Under a devolved system of national educational administration, soon to be followed by legislative devolution, the difference of attitude is unexceptional.

Mr Wilson's is the approach which ought to appeal more to teachers. They have been repeatedly told that praise produces better results than blame. Children respond to encouragement and so do teachers, not least following a long period in which their efforts were denigrated by politicians. The Scottish Office also knows individuals schools much better than the DFEE. HMIs in Scotland remain close to the Government as well as to the ground. South of the border Ofsted works in a different way. In addition, education authorities have proved alert to problems in their schools. Recently Edinburgh and Clackmannan have both taken brisk action to restore confidence in a troubled primary.

No doubt that is a main reason why Mr Wilson's strategy is to ask education conveners for their support in setting school targets. His aim differs little from that of the previous Government because the starting point remains the work of the inspectorate in devising forms of appraisal, audit and target setting with which schools have become familiar. Although the details of how targets will be set and performance monitored remain to be decided, it is clear that the inspectorate's experience will be paramount.

Winning the confidence of councils, teachers and parents offers the biggest challenge. Schools are used to devising development plans and auditing their success in meeting self-imposed challenges. They may identify and tackle a particular problem - underperformance at Standard grade, for example. But an externally set agenda will be of a different order, especially as it moves towards the production of targets for individual pupils to achieve. The concept of value added will be crucial if the most favoured schools and the most deprived are to benefit, but not by comparing one against the other.

Teachers are keen to see better results in, say, maths and science. Language staff more than anyone are unhappy with the poor numbers taking Highers. But a mechanistic regime in which success is measured only by targets and graphs will turn innovation into yet another unproductive burden. And a test lies ahead of how generously the extra resources announced in last week's Budget are spread in classrooms.

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