Russell is lending his ears

12th March 2010 at 00:00

Are we at the dawn of a new enlightened age in Scottish education, and will it all be thanks to one man - and an Englishman at that?

Since Mike Russell took charge of the education brief, Scotland's traditional resistance to new ideas has been swept aside. Russell, from Bromley, Kent, is keen to hear what everyone has to say and is doing his best not to rule anything out, so everyone feels engaged and none feels intimidated. Full marks for application.

His recent comments that he is willing to be radical about devolving school management are refreshing. He even let it be known he was not against schools being managed independently of local authorities - a revolutionary idea that works in many countries and is there for all to see here at our best-performing state school - Jordanhill.

Contrast the willingness to hear new ideas, to discuss what works and what doesn't and to invite comparison with other systems with the so-called national debate on education, rigged from the start with its conclusions predetermined by the unmissed Labour Education Minister Cathy Jamieson.

We see a sharp contrast in the mood between Fiona Hyslop and Russell - and they are in the same ruling party. When East Lothian's education director Don Ledingham floated the idea of greater autonomy for schools, the former minister was not for listening. Russell knows what his ears are for.

It is not as if Scotland can avoid change as many other countries deliver better-educated children. What I'm questioning is the ability of pupils, parents, teachers and heads to change education from the bottom up. That scares politicians, because they lose control - and, with the constant pressure to deliver improving attainment, they think they need control.

This is one of the paradoxes of politics that is difficult to overcome unless you keep Friedrich von Hayek's Road to Serfdom or Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies at your bedside. As politicians can't know all the answers, it is better they create circumstances for people to make their own decisions rather than enforce what they think is best.

The days of the great plans for social engineering are now widely recognised to have been full of wrong turnings and dead ends, often resulting in poorer outcomes and unintended consequences that made existing problems worse and created new difficulties.

The creation of school boards may have been ideologically driven, but the 70 per cent or more of schools that took advantage of the system weren't caring about the motive. Such independence of thought was too much for the centralists, so Holyrood neutered the boards.

The social engineers had won another round, but we now find they are on the retreat and Russell is leading the charge. Whether it is clever politics to help build future coalitions or an open and enthusiastic mind, I don't care. We should be encouraging this genuine debate by congratulating the minister and by inviting more people to contribute in the same way.

Brian Monteith once believed a Scottish think tank was an oxymoron.

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