The right and the wrong of reform

14th February 1997 at 00:00
A respected Scottish heidie recently told me an alarming tale. The parents of a group of 13-year-old malefactors were invited into school to talk over certain anti-social behaviours with their offspring. After a somewhat subdued discussion without much parental input, one mum caught him in the corridor. "Oh rector," she whispered, "we really do agree with what you were saying, but we don't like to say anything in front of the bairns."

Afraid of their own children? Is Scotland heading the way of Egypt where a Sunday newspaper tells us that 80 per cent of mothers (including university graduates) can expect to be hit by their own sons? It sounds as if zero tolerance needs to be extended to the juvenile heavy squad. If some parents are actually not just feckless but fearties, too, perhaps the voluntary home-school contracts billed for further examination in the Government's White Paper on Raising the Standard may require inbuilt pre-access training in confidence building and assertiveness.

On second thoughts, let us look at more cost-effective approaches. Why not vaporise the shifting gray pall of moral relativism which so confuses parents and the rest of us. We could try promoting the unfashionable notions of "right" and "wrong". Hard words those - likely to cause spluttering among the chattering classes. Though I have to say that such spluttering may soon become a purely Scottish phenomenon: there are signs that south of the border these useful guidelines may be due for revival. My guess is that parents would find them helpful.

Or what about a taste of Charles Kingsley's Water Babies? Who remembers the gentle Mrs "Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By" and the terrifying Mrs "Be-Done-By-As-You-Did"? Here's an even more outre notion for the education manifestos. What about giving the Ten Commandments priority billing? (This would, of course, need referral back to the Good Book plus a high-profile marketing campaign, for a recent survey suggests that a large percentage of clergypersons cannot recall all 10).

Parent voters might find the idea attractive, though if the message on, shall we say, adultery was too strong for modern stomachs, Christ's summing up of the Commandments ("Love your neighbour as yourself") should fill the bill nicely. Mention of the Good Book brings me back to Raising the Standard and its timely proposals for reform of teachers' pay and conditions. Of course, there is fuss a-plenty, but I notice two major players on the education scene are quietly delighted.

First, management, which has been frustrated for years by the intractability of some unions, and the lack of co-operation in carrying through various national initiatives. The ability to "resist change by failure to agree" has been developed to a fine art. For example, the constraints of absence cover arrangements; jobs guaranteed on a permanent basis after a year's temporary employment irrespective of service needs; promoted posts related to hours taught on a narrow subject basis - these have all mitigated against flexible service delivery.

Second, headteachers, who with the advent of devolved management increasingly recognise that the split of teaching and non-teaching time in the working week and fixed allocations set aside for curriculum development are conditions of the past. Last year the Headteachers' Association of Scotland called them "outdated and inflexible".

Perhaps reform should have happened sooner, but it is happening now. So let's give thanks to Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary and listen carefully to Helen Liddell of Labour. Reform will be welcomed by many, particularly in the new councils, who seek flexibility of service delivery to allow the management of budgets in the best interests of pupils.

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