Labour's decision to introduce homeschool "compacts" is "unique before a general election", Helen Liddell, the party's spokeswoman on education, told a Socialist Educational Association fringe meeting at the party's Scottish conference in Edinburgh last Saturday.
But Mrs Liddell acknowledged that it might take 15 years to implement the scheme fully. Councils in North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire and Edinburgh are to pilot individual learning plans, under proposals spelled out in the policy document Every Child is Special. Other Labour-run authorities are said to be planning similar moves. Some may also pilot the idea of "parent advocates" to act as bridges between parents and teachers. "A lot of people come to me to say they are petrified of schools," Mrs Liddell said. Labour's policies on education were shaped by a realisation that the first year of a Labour administration would be taken up with a Scottish parliament, Mrs Liddell said. "We have been careful not to change primary legislation too much because the devolution Bill will take up time on the floor of the House." Reforms might best be achieved by delegated powers, statutory instruments and regulation. Almost every bit of the policy document was already being implemented by Labour authorities. Mrs Liddell also suggested that an education Bill for England and Wales would take precedence. With six different types of school the system "is in utter chaos and standards are declining". But she noted "a tinge of complacency" in Scotland about standards, a point echoed by David Watt, the SEA's chairman and a Glasgow secondary teacher. Mr Watt, in his address to the main conference, condemned criticism of Mrs Liddell's policy document as "unjustified". He said: "The most important point is that it is a consultative document." The issue of setting was also addressed by Mrs Liddell. "There has been an assumption that able children will get through regardless. We believe in setting but there is a significant difference between setting and streaming. As a parent, I think that is important. If you play to a child's strengths, you let them taste success," she said. Mr Watt said 90 per cent of S1S2 classes were currently of mixed ability. "We should not be dictating classroom organisation to schools. We should be building on differentiation," he said. Mrs Liddell said Labour's drive to raise standards would be delivered through an emphasis on teacher development, beginning with teacher education and working through to staff development, with distance learning degrees run through a University of Industry. A separate faculty of Scottish education would help with in-service training. "We have to make sure there is continuous development and assessment of teachers. Change is going to have to happen and you cannot stand still," Mrs Liddell said. On the issue of "bad" teachers, she added: "It must be awful if you are a committed teacher and there is someone down the corridor who has just had enough. It is a very stressful occupation." She promised support over workload grievances and enhanced promotion prospects for classroom staff.