Neil Munro reports on ministers' determination to signal the start of a new era as the drive for excellence goes online
A PASSIONATE defence of the work done by teachers was launched last week by Peter Peacock, Deputy Minister for Children and Education.
Speaking in the unlikely setting of a conference at St Andrews University extolling the virtues of distance learning, Mr Peacock discarded his prepared text and combined his praise with one of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the new technologies ever delivered by a minister.
He repeated the assurance given in a recent TES Scotland interview with Sam Galbraith, Minister for Children and Education, that the Scottish Executive is determined to enhance the professional status of teachers. "It is one of the most responsible and one of the most difficult jobs," Mr Peacock said.
Referring mainly to his visits to schools when he was convener of Highland Council, Mr Peacock told his audience: "I have never left a school yet without being hugely impressed by the commitment, dedication and imaginative work I've seen from the staff."
While reinforcing the Government's message that continuous improvement in standards is the centrepiece of its educational agenda, Mr Peacock acknowledged "Providing resources is part of that task."
He wants to see many more opportunities for teachers and lecturers to come together to exchange ideas and share good practice, which itself would help to raise standards. "Staff need time to learn from each other about practical matters not just about the lofty, high-brow aspirations we all have," he said.
Mr Peacock went on to enthuse about the benefits of information and communications technology (ICT), again drawing on his Highland experience with the ICT-based project to create the University of the Highlands and Islands. He also revealed he had written distance learning materials for the voluntary sector and had run a small business which was made immeasurably easier with ICT.
Technology can throw a lifeline to small schools and help deliver a high-quality curriculum, he said. Parents in north-west Scotland were now happy to send their children to small secondaries like Gairloch, Ullapool and Kinlochbervie with rolls of 100 to 200, which would have been "unthinkable" a few years ago.
"You can now form a peer group not just with your immediate neighbours but with the rest of Scotland, the UK and the world," Mr Peacock said.
He reminded his audience that more than pound;120 million would be invested in the National Grid for Learning over the next four years, once the Government's pound;62 million contribution was matched by the local authorities. Some pound;23 million will be channelled from the lottery into training teachers and librarians in the use of ICT during the same period, and another pound;29 million is earmarked for further education.
Mr Peacock linked his two themes by asserting the primacy of the teacher over the technology. ICT "will not replace the teacher, although the role of teachers might be adapted while they act as more of a support to the learner. But teachers will be very much at the heart of the process and therefore at the heart of our concerns."
The minister's "staunch defence of the role of the teacher" won warm praise from Professor Stephen Hepple of the pioneering Ultralab at East Anglia University. Mike Baughan, chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, one of the conference organisers, was impressed by Mr Peacock's "grasp of the issues".