Out of the strait-jacket

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Daniel Murphy continues our series on the way forward for Scottish education with praise for the wind of change sweeping the corridors of power

EACHERS all know there is a time for criticism and a time for praise. Many of us who have had the job of making the inflexible prescriptions of national advice to secondary schools work in practice over the past 10 years or so have been critical of that advice in private, if not in public. There was unceasing top-down pressure on schools to conform to a model of practice which only ever could exist on paper. This pressure was matched by the enthusiasm of inspectors to use the inspection process to whip into line recalcitrant school communities, which might have the temerity to believe that they actually knew what might work best for their community.

There still is a big list of unachievable initiatives cluttering up the Scottish secondary school system, and using up the valuable time of teachers in schools - an opportunity cost which can be quite high in school communities where the biggest priority is to give staff, pupils and parents time to talk to each other about what will work for them, rather than force unwilling staff to spend time trying to master a prescription for practice which they know from the start will not work.

Far from being praised for their feats of ingenuity in fitting this national template to the children in front of them, teachers in subject departments in secondary schools in areas such as social subjects or the expressive arts were still being inspected and criticised for not fully implementing national advice, for example in 5-14. The courses being taught, and their relevance and suitability, were deemed less important than conformity to a national template and, depending on the degree of humanity and understanding of the inspector, very good work which engaged pupils and built a good platform for their future learning might be ignored or dismissed.

This was exacerbated where inspectors with a background in maths might end up assessing the quality of work in music. Less able to make judgments, they were readier to match the curriculum against an inflexible set of bureaucratic criteria.

There have been many other examples of the tension between inflexible national "solutions" and the common sense of those working within educational communities. Higher Still is the obvious one. Only through extended struggle, involving political pressure which led to two postponements and a phased introduction, was Higher Still got to a stage where it could be made to work in the classroom. Once again it was the "teacher mechanics" who actually got it working educationally.

Given this background, it is small wonder that teachers around the country have become so suspicious of clever ideas drawn up by people outwith schools who do not actually have to make them work. But however difficult it is to put aside this scepticism, teachers should pay attention. A wind of change has been sweeping through national policy corridors. In its wake, the old order is shifting and, for the first time in a generation, a new and vigorous model for developing school education offers teachers a much more creative say. We have been quick to criticise in the past, so let us give praise where it is due now. In a short space of time we have seen a range of adjustments to the strategic framework which will have substantial long-term benefits. Among the key plus points have been the decision to reduce HMI's role in policy and ensure inspection is against outcomes, not inputs; securing resources to fund the McCrone package and give a boost to the morale and status of teachers at all levels in the system; identifying clear national priorities for the public education system; establishing lines of professional accountability for directors of education through inspection.

There has been a pragmatic "can do" approach from the Education Minister to major challenges, evidenced in the prompt and reasonably effective handling of the Higher Still debacle and in the refusal of the discipline task group to settle for a round of bland and platitudinous statements. I would like to single out two further initiatives. First, there is the very welcome recent circular which takes top-down pressure off the secondary school curriculum. For the first time in a generation, staff will be able to sit down together and develop their own solutions to the challenges facing them. How could this have been done by a curriculum that forced everyone into the same strait-jacket?

econd, and just as important, is the commitment to develop a framework for professional development which encourages and enhances teachers' capacity to make successful judgments about what is best for their pupils and their school. This new system of professional development does not assume that there is already an answer. Being good at complying with national advice is less important than having the professional knowledge, of best practice and of the issues involved, which can inform local discussion and decision-making.

The Scottish Qualification for Headship is the first, albeit imperfect, example of such a framework. Not everything is sorted. It never will be. And there are still worrying aspects of the system, many old and some new. Even in the new systems for school improvement established in last year's Act there is a worrying potential for a different Education Minister to use development planning as a ruthless policy tool.

None the less much has changed for the good and, in the current jargon, there is a strong positive ethos developing. So well done Jack McConnell. Keep it up.

Daniel Murphy is director of the Scottish Qualification for Headship Unit at the faculty of education, Edinburgh University.

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