Over the horizon: what does the new session hold for us?

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
Educators and political leaders alike will face a special set of challenges in the coming year

On Sunday my grandson proudly showed me his new school shoes while his mother muttered about the price of them, on Monday the teachers' cars were back in the car park of my local primary school, and Tuesday saw the school buses clog up the roads. School's back, holiday suntans are on display in the staffroom but fading quickly, and a new session unfolds. But what does is it herald?

Most important of all, it will capture the enquiring minds, hopes and aspirations, fears and frustrations, and a great deal more, of our young people who deserve the best we can give them, so that they can be the successful young Scots of the future. Our new crop of teachers who have joined as 2011 probationers would do well never to forget just what a difference teaching can make to a young person's life and just how privileged a job it is. Good luck to you all in your careers, I say.

Not only will school session 2011-12 see personal opportunities and challenges for our learners and educators, but political session 2011-12 will also see significant opportunities and challenges for our national education system. The seemingly harsh budgets set by local authorities fully impact on schools from August and this autumn will see a three-year spending review which will form the basis of education budgets through until 2015.

Bearing in mind the current global and national financial pressures, this is going to be a hard call for our political leaders. Just where do the priorities lie? How do you ensure that the balance of local and national priorities is struck, as well as the aspirations that so many have from our education system? This is a time when we must identify and agree the must-dos, tackle the burning issues, and focus absolutely on the things that make a difference to young people.

So what does make a difference to our young people? Research, as well as experience, tells us that the quality of educators and teachers in the classroom coupled with the leadership in schools are the key ingredients for successful systems. Both of these factors will see significant milestones this year with Gerry McCormac's review due to be published before the tattie holidays and work on the Donaldson Review related to leadership already underway. I hope that in both instances the outcomes are brave and inspiring. Teachers in Scotland will be looking carefully with one eye on McCormac for their conditions of service and the other on inevitable changes in pension schemes.

Changes must happen, given the financial pressures, curriculum changes and societal churn, but careful consideration of how best to react to any proposals will be required. We have a 21st-century curriculum for 21st- century learners which has so much to offer our nation. I hope we can arrive at 21st-century solutions to some of the glaring issues out there.

Curriculum for Excellence is the jewel in our national education crown, and must continue to inspire our learners who cannot be held to ransom over assessment and qualifications issues. These must surely be finalised by all parties this year, so that an innovative senior phase is available which builds on the broad foundations of prior learning.

A 21st century pedagogy will also be required, combining the best of the old with the best of the new, with Glow reaching out to learners and educators as a fundamental part of delivering the curriculum, not a peripheral option. What a set of opportunities we in Scotland have, given the austere conditions that prevail. We could be the envy of many nations if we get this right in 2011-12. It's a heavy burden on the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland, but an opportunity too for reputations to be made.

Brian Monteith, in a recent TESS article, spoke of the need for radical solutions in respect of attainment issues in Scotland (12 August). Whether we agree or not with his solutions, it is worth reflecting that 20 per cent of our young people are in cyclical under-achievement. This has been identified in a series of national and international reviews as the greatest challenge we face. It is unacceptable for this to go on. We should cast an eye to Wales, where poor PISA results and the inability of schools and local authorities to secure improvement has seen responsibility for aspects of education move towards a national agency.

This session will see the start of the new government's legislative programme, as well as local government elections. How will the relationship between local and national government evolve, given the pressures that are around? Councils will have to set potentially very difficult budgets while also trying to remain electable. Add to that some national imperatives and we could have a recipe for tensions. The difference this session compared to last, of course, is that there is a majority Scottish Government in Holyrood.

So, there's a lot to play for over the course of this session, huge challenges but opportunities to set the course for education for a decade and more. By the summer holidays of 2012 we will be in a position to see just what history will have made of it. That, more than anything, will be a reflection of the leadership the education community gives to the needs of our young people. My other grandson will also have started his journey into education in an early years setting - brilliant!

Bruce Robertson was director of education in Highland and Aberdeenshire from 1998-2010 and is currently working on an ADES commission.

Bruce Robertson, Education policy consultant.

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