At last someone's listening to heads;Opinion

19th March 1999 at 00:00
THERE IS AN endearing touch to Ambrose Bierce's definition in his Devil's Dictionary of a cynic as a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Confession time. After long exposure to the vagaries and constantly fickle winds of policy change from various shades of authority, a measure of cynicism has entered my soul. Nothing to be proud about, unlike some colleagues whose cynicism immune systems collapsed years ago, and who steep themselves in as much self-fulfilling prophecy as they can get their hands on. I have a chink of open mind left. Not much, but a little.

Recently, a ray of hope shone through the chink, and shifted around some of the built-up crust of cynicism. Paradoxically, just when I was having this almost mystical experience I was being hoist by my own petard, blown up by my own bomb.

My last contribution to The TES Scotland was about the danse macabre of non-consultation that our politicians like to lead us in. The day it appeared, contrary to all my preconceived prejudices, I was engaging in what I think is the first real effort at consultation of headteachers I have experienced in a career that spans Glasgow Corporation. Strathclyde Region and Glasgow City Council.

I am not really inclined to state categorically that Strathclyde was a ringer for Jonathan Swift's Laputa, but often its consultation processes did bear a close resemblance to the floating island - no visible anchors and just a few trailing moorings - and was in a constant state of change.

Its philosophers, however, did spend a lot of time updating the effort to extract educational sunbeams from ideological cucumbers, an early try at genetic modification. It is only now, when the cucumbers seem to have been cleared from the greenhouses of the local authorities that replaced Strathclyde, and money has become available again, that we can see a little more clearly the whole range of educational exercises we must engage in.

The occasion was a conference for headteachers on "The New Education Agenda". It was held in the STUC Centre, that is, Woodlands Teachers Centre in a previous incarnation. I felt a little uncomfortable basking in the unfamiliar warm and bright pastel wall shades (I can't afford to paint my establishment) and sipping coffee amid what looked like proto-Ken Currie line drawings (I just don't like the genre).

And if the truth be completely told, the agenda of "The New Agenda" hardly left me quivering with expectation. The cynic in me persisted in reminders that I had heard this before, that Glasgow heads were again being called in to sup "cauld kail rehet".

As the conference unfolded, I realised I had heard it before, but this time it sounded different. What was new and pleasantly surprising for me was the dawning realisation that this time it might just happen. I'm not one for millennial hogwash, nor am I prepared to be swayed by educational pom-pom persons doing their ra-ra, but I detected a sincerity in the plans that were unfolding, and not just a sincerity but a distinct will to make sure that those plans become reality for the children we serve. Early intervention, improving liaison, promoting social inclusion, improving attendance, adding to learning opportunities, literacy and numeracy, ICT throughout the school - we heard it all.

Then, in a change of direction that certainly took me by surprise, we were asked about it. Our views, in the officialese, were invited, and hints were dropped that they would be acted on. This was consultation from another time-warp - asking what do you want, and we'll do our best to get it for you.

It's hard to shake off the satisfaction that Bierce's definition of cynicism offers, and easy to get cosy with "I told you so". Yet I don't think I am falling for the Barnum effect, the tendency to read more meaning into what I heard than there really is.

The bottom line is that headteacher morale must come off life support. Maybe Glasgow has flung us a lifeline this time.

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