School boards under scrutiny

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports on how government ministers defended themselves and promised action to the Parliament's education committee

Ministers are to conduct a searching evaluation of the role of school boards.

This was revealed last week when the Parliament's education committee grilled Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, and his deputy Peter Peacock on the draft education bill.

"We have to widen parents' involvement beyond the school board system," Mr Peacock said. But he added that they did not want to send out a signal that the school board system is "fatally flawed or under threat."

The ministers came under pressure from the SNP, which gave notice that it wants amendments to the school board provisions in the proposed legislation.

Ministers plan to make the rules less complicated so that board vacancies can be filled by co-opting parents, rather than forcing them to stand in by-elections. But Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP education spokesperson, said this could lead to boards of almost entirely unelected members, which could undermine their credibility.

Mr Galbraith said the changes were prompted by parents who found elections "intimidating." But he revealed ministers were "turning our minds" to a possible reform of school boards, although he could not yet say what form this might take.

In wide-ranging exchanges, ministers pledged to honour the undertaking in the coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats to set up a national forum to monitor educational standards.

Mr Galbraith said the delay simply reflected a desire to get it right. He told Ms Sturgeon: "We must find the right model and not create a talking shop." And he assured Brian Monteith, the Tory education spokesperson, that parents would retain the right to go to court for a judicial review when they believe local authorities or schools are not fulfilling their statutory duties.

The SNP members of the committee spent some considerable time probing ministerial attitudes towards teachers. Michael Russell, the SNP's Parliamentary business manager, suggested their attempts at conciliation were falling on stony ground.

But Mr Galbraith repeated the well-polished mantra that his olive branches must be reciprocated. "Every profession and job moves forward, changes its terms and conditions and works more efficiently and effectively," he said. "Every profession gets assessed and continues professional development. There is no reason why teachers should be excluded from that process."

Mr Peacock stressed that "teachers all over Scotland go the extra mile on behalf of their pupils." But he also noted "a range of impediments to improving their professionalism. How can a teacher be made to get out of the classroom for the first time in a decade to go and see somebody else performing? How can best practice be shared using the national grid for learning?" He was sharply reminded by one of his own backbenchers that life on the front line is not that simple. Ian Welsh, the Labour MSP for Ayr and a former depute head, said the constraints were such that contact between teachers in different schools could only be piecemeal at best. But he did agree that technology offered potential for spreading best practice.

Mr Welsh, the former leader of South Ayrshire Council, told the ministers that "the most pressing need is to reinvigorate the teaching staff. Teachers are not immune to new ideas, but they are worn down by ceaseless innovation." His sentiments were echoed by another coalition supporter, Ian Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, who made a plea for ministers to listen.

Mr Jenkins, formerly head of English at Peebles High, praised the change of "mood music." However, he added, "teachers are not inflexible, but when their professional concerns appear to be overridden by what is said, in spite of the good things that are being said, there is a danger that our efforts will be spoiled."

In reply, Mr Galbraith repeated his tribute to the "outstanding job" teachers do and sympathised with calls for more stability against the constant tide of change. "But it is important that that should not mean stagnation."

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