Peacock's fine words butter no parsnips

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Are you excited about Peter Peacock's programme of action? To what extent are you waving your flags and yearning to grasp the nettle which is the future of Scottish education, so to speak? It's a very fine thing that education is generating so many column centimetres but how viable are the Education Minister's proposals?

Take the overhaul of S1 to S3. There will be increased opportunities for challenge, choice and motivation. However, for this to work we will have to abandon traditional thinking (going round in circles) and adopt a new spirit of divergent thought processes. This is a daunting task for local authorities and schools.

Right now, we are hooked on keeping everyone the same, thus driving a coach and horses through any suggestion that pupils are individuals who are entitled to develop at the pace allowed by their ability rather than their age. The current comprehensive school system in Scotland is a tortured legacy of the backlash against the previous selective system which was perceived to be elitist and prejudiced towards the high achiever. (By the way, does this new emphasis on excellence mean that Latin can be restored to its rightful place in the Scottish education system?) For too many years, high-flyers in S1 to S3 have been bored out of their minds. My nephew, one of the top children in his class in S1, was recently asked by his English teacher to memorise the months of the year. An astonishingly demeaning task, yes, but few bright children in the early years of secondary school are receiving an education which is individually tailored. This is indefensible.

What will have to change to allow the flowing of milk and honey in Mr Peacock's promised land of multiple innovations? His statement was sprinkled with phrases such as "openness to new thinking" - fine and good, no problem with that. But, as the teaching unions have said, we need more financial resources. I don't want to be a Jeremiah, foretelling gloom and damping down enthusiasm, but most classroom practitioners are grappling with inadequate or non-existent resources.

In the brave new world speculated for S1 to S3, I see mega expense looming.

Imagine a system that allows bright young pupils to take up a Higher course in, for instance, S2. Everything connected with the delivery of that course is more expensive - textbooks, for example. Inevitably, the question of where that finance will come from has to be addressed along with the issue of whether councils will give a good service in terms of value for money.

Fortunately, it seems highly likely that local authorities will be made much more accountable. Already, they are clearly feeling a tad defensive with Ewan Aitken, their education spokesperson, commenting that councils are "the cornerstone in managing and delivering school education".

I have to disagree - it is headteachers and their staff who deliver education. Councils may certainly have a remit to manage education but, as HMI inspections are concluding, some of them are making a pig's ear of it.

At the moment much of what goes on at local authority level is just hot air and endless tea party meetings. One meaningful target for the minister might be to examine the qualifications of the education officers who presently manage the education services. Many of them are teachers who were initially seconded for temporary tasks but who eventually become permanent fixtures in managing areas of education for which they have no training.

The pursuit of excellence shouldn't be the sacred domain of the schools - the quest for it should hit the ground running in education offices. This is crucial for the delivery of the new vision. From where I'm standing, the chink of hope is very tiny. The rhetoric-reality gap needs to be bridged.


Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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