Making McConnell's prospectus perform

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Fred Forrester believes the Education Minister's proposals for the way ahead, unveiled in the TESScotland two weeks ago, are worth listening to

FIRST we must look for the coded messages in Jack McConnell's new educational prospectus. Like the consummate politician he is, Mr McConnell tries to avoid creating knee-jerk opposition. There is something for everyone in his statement, but the essential messages are quite hard and will not be delivered unless he pushes them with vigour and determination. Furthermore, his personal time-scale is effectively limited to the period of less than two years until the next elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Mr McConnell wants teachers and schools to bring about educational improvements within a framework of national priorities. This suggests a move towards more school autonomy, with a lesser role for education authorities. He wants to produce more flexibility in the curriculum, which implies a downgrading of the existing national curricular guidelines, particularly at 5-14.

Very significantly, he suggests that "disaffected pupils" should be able to have part of their education outside the school environment, that "gifted pupils" should be able to concentrate on their best subjects and that the existing "age and stage" restrictions affecting Standard grade and Higher Higher Still should be removed. For a system as uniform and centralist as the Scottish school system, this is a bold prospectus.

I see that my old Educational Institute of Scotland colleague George MacBride (TESS, August 17) has sniffed out that there may be a proposal here for an academic-vocational divide and has put down a marker against any move towards two-stream education. However, as someone who has come from the same educational position as Mr MacBride, I would like to suggest that the time has come for some traditional approaches to be re-examined. Indeed, there is much to be welcomed in the McConnell proposals.

Educationists of a certain age exist in the shadow of pre-1970 selective secondary education. We lived through the capricious iniquity of the qualifying examination. We saw siblings sent to senior secondary or junior secondary on the basis of the capacities of local schools as much as their assumed abilities and aptitudes. The junior secondary sector, despite having a few enthusiasts running a few good schools, was generally a dumping ground.

So we quite rightly moved to a system of comprehensive secondary schools. Though there can be no going back, we should now recognise some of the weaknesses that have become manifest over more than 30 years and seek to correct them. First, a system based, initially at least, on rigid catchment areas was never going to meet the needs of all pupils. Schools exclusively serving economically poor communities were never likely to provide good learning environments.

An umbrella curriculum and mixed-ability teaching may have suited the common courses of the early comprehensive schools, but the raising of the leaving age and the huge expansion in voluntary staying-on rates was bound to transform the upper school, with inevitable effects on the early secondary years.

Crucially, we must accept that education is a two-way process or it is nothing. If the young adult does not have an impetus to learn, then little learning will take place. There are distinctions of character, motivation and aspiration that are just as important as ability. If a "disaffected" able pupil prefers work experience to further study, the school should have no qualms about accepting the pupil's wishes. Conversely, a special needs pupil may decide to remain in school to seek national qualifications.

In other words, education should be driven by individual needs, not by the objectives of the state. The people most able to give guidance to pupils about their educational future are the teachers, not politicians, national or local, or even parents. In carrying out this task, teachers should be freed from unnecessary curricular and bureaucratic restraints. If that is what Mr McConnell means, then we should cheer him along the way.

Such a policy involves placing trust in the professionalism of teachers. This has implications for the role of the General Teaching Council for Scotland and for school managers. Headteachers and principal teachers will have to put more trust in the teachers who work under them.

Can politicians agree to a self-denying ordinance under which a publicly funded education system will have the degree of institutional and classroom autonomy that is required for the achievement of the best educational outcomes? We shall see.

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

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