Resolutions for the future of education;Platform;Opinion

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Would-be Scottish parliamentarian Donald Macgregor offers his ideas for a new, reformed system of schooling

MY VIEWS on education are shaped by 35 years of secondary teaching in Fife, Argyll, France and Germany, and by the experiences of my parents and stepmother, all primary teachers.

Last summer I wrote to the then minister, Brian Wilson, with some ideas about education policy for the Labour Government. He replied encouragingly, and indeed I notice some of these ideas appearing in his successor, Helen Liddell's press releases and circulars.

Teachers are among the most stressed professionals. My first concern therefore is to improve the atmosphere in "the workplace". That means removing as much as possible of the hierarchical structure of schools, colleges and universities and attempting some more democratic system, perhaps like that in German schools, where individual teachers have much more autonomy and responsibility. There should be more overlap between schools and universities, as on the Continent, so that secondary and tertiary areas understand each other's problems.

Although the consequence of reducing hierarchies would be a cut in "responsibility payments" and a redistribution of these to all staff, accompanied by a decent pay rise, I believe it would be worth it. Pupils respond to the influence of an inspirational headteacher just as they react adversely to a more negative one, but they also respond to an inspirational classroom teacher who has energy and is not "hauden doun" by menial tasks and writing of "policies" which end up in a file.

The unions will of course not like the reduction in responsibility payments, and clearly existing payments have to be conserved. The general pay rise would be funded by the abolition of much of the administrative layer of education departments, since budgets and much else would be devolved to schools. There need be no loss of clerical or other assistance, since these posts would be transferred to the individual schools.

Buildings vacated by central administration would be sold off, made over to schools or converted to technical and practical centres to train those pupils who do not wish to attend traditional classes but need skills for finding a job.

There is at present too much by way of theoretical knowledge, too much information peripheral to the job that pupils may wish to do. How much do you need to know about geology to build dykes? Or about the history of the East Indies trade to be a grocer? There are many opportunities to get back into education when it seems worth doing. It is the stubbornly resistant pupils who cause so much day-to-day stress for teachers.

Compulsion is the enemy of learning. Of course there are things that everyone needs to learn, like arithmetic, moral concepts, vocabulary in a foreign language, spelling, grammatical structures, places and dates. But things like the compulsory modern foreign language from S1 to S4 do not work, as has been demonstrated by the feeble take-up rate after Standard grade, which itself is variable in quality. Mixed ability teaching in subjects like mathematics and modern languages is proven to be disastrous. The schools that "allow" (the term should be "insist on") setting as early as possible are the ones with the best results right up to Sixth Year Studies. If we are to have compulsory modern languages, they should be at or near the start of primary.

We should leave Higher Still as close as possible to the existing system until a complete range of teaching and testing materials is ready, printed and distributed, and take a closer look at the primarysecondary interface and at Standard grade, a reform which was introduced in much the same way as Higher Still and has lowered standards for the majority.

I suggested to Mr Wilson that those likely to do Higher could sit Standard grade in S3, which would give them a two-year course to Higher, as the Howie report recommended. Mrs Liddell has taken up this idea, which is good if her words are translated into action.

The school year is at present controlled by the dead hand of the Scottish Qualification Authority's timetable. In the new Scotland, that grip would be relaxed. Schools should be given an increased role in the grading of candidates, with perhaps an external moderator for uniformity, though the SQA would continue to set parts of the exam nationally.

With Credit level S grade candidates sitting their exams in S3, it would be possible to restore the main exam diet to March, and leave the summer term free for educational activities like sports competition, drama, concerts, visits and exchanges, which under the Higher Still regime are likely to be squeezed into oblivion.

On the subject of foreign contacts, local authorities should club together to acquire properties on the Continent to be used as centres for young people. We need not be on the periphery of Europe, save in a geographical sense. We have fine writers and film-makers, wonderful children and teachers, some of the best universities in the UK, but we are held back by the quality of thinking of our politicians.

We independents, who do not spend our time exchanging insults with other parties, but in devising policies that enjoy the support of the people (including, I believe, students, parents and teachers) could well hold the balance of power in the new parliament.

There will be a very big turnout on May 6 and there could be a revolution in the way Scotland is governed. I understand only 23,000 votes in a Euro-constituency are enough to get an MSP elected. So let's have the teaching profession, excluded from local government since 1995, properly represented in Scotland's first parliament since Rob Roy was using my Macgregor ancestors as runners on Speyside.

Donald Macgregor, principal teacher of German at Madras College, St Andrews, is prospective Independent Alliance candidate in North-East Fife for the Scottish parliament.

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