Let the big stick stay south of the border

16th May 1997 at 01:00
In its first week south of the border, Labour has launched into its education agenda at a cracking pace in contrast to the measured approach in Scotland. Stephen Byers, the schools minister, immediately summoned a clutch of reports on alleged failing schools and promised to send in the hit squads, out-Torying the Tories. Some schools may close and reopen, like a refurbished pub "under new management". If it works for pubs, who is to say it will not work for schools?

The climate in England has always been different from Scotland, which explains why we stand on the brink of our first parliament for almost 300 years. Helen Liddell's schools' blueprint for Scottish Labour in government included references to closing failing schools but no one seriously believed there was strong intent to carry out the threat. It appeared an electoral tactic, included to chime with the agenda down south.

In Scotland, the Inspectorate does not appear to have a hit list of schools ready for the big stick, although comments in Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools, its annual statement, pose questions about standards of teaching in 15 per cent of primaries and 20 per cent of secondaries. They acknowledge, however, that the 8 per cent of secondaries where pupils fail to reach minimum standards of exam performance are in areas of disadvantage.

North of the border, HMI reports, apart from their usual current criticisms, are pretty lifeless reads, bordering on extreme caution. Privately, they may say more to individual schools and local authorities, yet there is no public paranoia about awful schools. Parents often choose a "good" school but few speak of dreadful schools.

As Professor Pamela Munn of Moray House Institute underlined recently, the way to improve performance is not by wagging fingers at teachers. Self-evaluation and self-improvement are the tools wielded by the Inspectorate's audit unit and proudly displayed to the educational world. We like to do things differently.

Brian Wilson, the new Education Minister, seems unlikely to depart from the Scottish consensus and borrow Mr Byers's stick. Mr Wilson would be expected to place more store by councils putting their schools in order if they are seen to be slipping or losing the confidence of parents. There is ample evidence of authorities doing just that.

Scottish authorities and schools have not lost the trust of parents as the paltry number of opted-out schools confirms. Standards could always be better, particularly in disadvantaged areas. But working with teachers rather than against them seems a more rational approach and Mr Wilson's confirmation of the go-ahead for the Pounds 9 million early intervention scheme in primaries seems a sensible start.

The big stick is best left in the corner.

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