Reform, reform, reform

5th November 2004 at 00:00
evolutions promised by politicians rarely turn out to be as significant as that. But it is worth acknowledging that Peter Peacock's proposed reforms are certainly comprehensive in their scope: there is little in schools, further education colleges and teacher training that will be left untouched. The Executive has set itself - and schools - a demanding agenda to implement over the next three years.

It will no doubt be judged by its political opponents on the usual partisan criteria. But the education world, which matters more, has already given its verdict as summarised by the highly conditional response of the Educational Institute of Scotland - involve teachers, provide the cash, avoid overloading schools and only then will the teaching force be with you. The Executive has promised all three, so the quality indicators are already in place.

Mr Peacock's reform package is a heady mix which has a number of sources.

He is responding to the outcome of the national education debate, signalling that he has listened to teacher concerns on the curriculum and assessment in particular, reassuring his critics that he is not complacent and attempting to impose his own policy stamp with previously heralded policies on struggling schools, leadership and personal learning plans.

The strategy can hardly be regarded as revolutionary in the sense that the minister is not considering overnight change. No doubt Lord Forsyth, the former education minister and Scottish Secretary in the Tory years, is ruefully casting his mind back to the uproar of the early 1990s when he suggested, rather more tentatively, that Scottish education could do with a dose of revolution.

So what are we to make of the substance of Mr Peacock's package? The "ambitious schools" mantra is clearly a belated attempt to come to the aid of struggling schools; whatever the spin, it is as close as one can get in Scotland to the more negative sounding "special measures" for schools south of the border. The advent of curricular flexibility has been generally well received, although there is clearly concern about a "free-for-all": an interesting dichotomy which implies some uncertainty as to whether we should be encouraging teacher autonomy or limiting their discretion. The assessment plans have been given much less attention - perhaps because they were smuggled out via a website footnote.

But perhaps the most significant long-term effect may lie in the relationship between schools and education authorities. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, taking a rather defensive line, is clearly not happy - and perhaps councils are right not to be. Mr Peacock, ironically for a former Cosla vice-president, has previously made clear that he is less than enamoured with the performance of some authorities. And his repeated references to the role of councils as "facilitators" to support what schools have already decided, combined with a renewed emphasis on the pivotal role of headteachers, serves to reinforce the impression of his lack of amour. On the other hand, the authorities remain the teachers'

employer and they are expected also to "facilitate" the implementation of the Executive's policies.

This tension is one of many at the heart of the Executive's plans. The watchwords are "flexibility with accountability". Ministers, in other words, want to balance the professional demands of teachers against political imperatives to act on apparent failings. They realise, however, that they have to take the profession with them and, while it may be the case that "the only constant is change", constant change is the one thing that might scupper schools' support.

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