M is for minister - and marketing

24th November 2000 at 00:00
FORSYTH, Douglas-Hamilton, Robertson, Liddell, Wilson, Galbraith, and now McConnell - they came and (mostly) went from the education hot seat. A change is as good as a rest, they say. Whether that is applicable to the recent panoply of Scotland's schools ministers is arguable, though the impact of individuals on the process as seen from the classroom might make for an amusing article in itself.

Naturally, all ministers wish to put their own stamp and that of their government on the policies and projects they find waiting on their desks. Ongoing policy must be dressed in individual presentation and packaging, for it's a sign of our times that the public, if not the profession, tends to equate activity and change with progress. Or perhaps it's just that the public lives in hope that the Scottish education system might one day regain its former international glory.

Probably never has the post been taken up with quite the handicapping baggage now facing Jack McConnell in our failed national examination system.

His first year - with major personal credibility dependent upon it - is likely to be heavily taken up with ensuring the creation of an exam results system which can be relied upon to deliver, and quickly.

That said, this minister promises an interesting tenure. Some of his pronouncements could have come straight from the lips of Chris Woodhead, recently departed head of the Office for Standards in Education. Mr McConnell wants better pay together with greater flexibility and responsibility for teachers, and says that the status quo is not an option; so hold your hats for McCrone. He wants an overhaul of teacher training and evaluation as part of the drive towards respected professionalism. Could it really happen this time?

Mr McConnell has a reputation as a moderniser, and now is his big chance to make that reputation stick. He as demanded less bureaucracy and fewer management tiers in the system: "No organisation with 2,000 employees running its affairs successfully in the 21st century will operate like the traditional education authority. The system as a whole needs radical overhaul."

There is glaring and simple evidence illustrating the truth of this which the minister might face up to. Why is it that almost everyone who can afford to opt into the independent secondary education sector, including teachers who were heavy users of the former Assisted Places Scheme, now does exactly this? Does he realise that more than half of all parents now choosing the independent sector were themselves educated in the state system, and now want what they perceive as something better for their children?

This is the core problem the minister must confront. It's too easy to make accusations of snobbery - easy but foolish. Are Scots parents more snobbish than their French or German counterparts? Those children go to state schools because European parents perceive them as providing a good education.

It is comforting but misleading to take refuge in the resources argument. I have seen the positively Dickensian art department - which would rightly not be tolerated in a local authority setting - of one of Scotland's major independent boarding schools. Nevertheless, this is a school with excellent art results and a healthy pupil waiting list.

The minister wants to make a difference. He now has his one chance to examine with an open mind the nuts and bolts of the system: the role of education authorities and the powers at present available to headteachers.

Perhaps basic marketing principles will suggest to Mr McConnell that the product needs to be what the customer wishes to buy, rather than what outdated political ideologies decree. Even the Russians know this now.

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