Schools need less politics, not more

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Flexibility will come through schools and teachers, not the ballot box, says Michael Russell.

What connects the teaching of philosophy to S1 pupils in Newton Mearns, the presence of a young jewellery designer in residence in a Wishaw primary school and the reorganisation of South Lanarkshire's education services? And how could you factor in Tony Blair, Michael Howard, Charles Kennedy and Alex Salmond?

That question sounds like something from the fiendishly difficult Radio 4 series, Round Britain Quiz. But the answer to it is the word "flexibility", which is becoming the new mantra from politicians about education. It is a term you will hear more and more often this spring as the call of the cuckoo gives way to the knock of the canvasser.

Dissecting the question, the freedom of headteachers to vary the curriculum is a welcome development. Teaching thinking skills is something whose time is coming, and Dr Catherine McCall's classes at Eastwood High are one of several innovations. Equipping young people with the tools by which they can open the doors of learning for themselves is far better than herding them like sheep over hurdles.

The presence of a craft jeweller in residence for a term at St Thomas primary in Wishaw is similarly inspirational. Creativity is the natural companion to structured thought and, taken together, the two skills are winners.

Finally, the recent decision by South Lanarkshire Council to redefine how it runs and supports education is equally exciting, although most will have some niggling reservations. Establishing 17 mini fiefdoms based round secondary schools might lead to a Balkanisation of effort and duplication of spending, but at least the attempt is being made to think new thoughts.

Unfortunately, the general election debate about education will be largely irrelevant to realities such as these, for education in Scotland is fully devolved and no amount of huffing and puffing on the UK hustings will result in any change of policy. Yet some good could come of it if it produces the early stirrings of debate as we approach the next Scottish Parliament elections, due in May 2007. For the Scottish parties, one of the key education issues should already be crystal clear. In order to get resources to the chalkface and free the potential of Scotland's young people, the long-standing tripartite division of responsibility for education between government, local authorities and schools needs a substantial shake-up.

None of the parties has yet recognised, however, that to propose effective solutions it is necessary to analyse why this division no longer works. In other words, to keep talking about flexibility but to mean so many different things (from more impositions on teachers to more power for parents) is likely to produce, as ever, more heat than light. What flexibility should mean is the creation of a system by which inclusion and excellence can become the foundation for our society.

The first job would be to see how teachers, parents and children want to go about this. The three examples I have given indicate some interesting answers. Most schools are aspirational, but they know that aspiration can be pointless unless it is backed up by creating the context in which achievement is possible.

So imparting the basic skills is the first essential step. Stimulating thinking and creativity, while acquiring the core elements of an education in terms of literacy and numeracy, should be the priorities. All education policy should be directed to this. Every effort needs to be made to ensure the fulcrum of activity is not management, but delivery. That means making schools the bedrock of policy.

The best way to do that is to have a lively, well resourced primary sector in which well trained and well supported teachers can get on and do their jobs. Once those jobs are done, the task of secondary schools in broadening experience and helping young people in their first steps towards specialisation becomes the obvious next challenge. Embracing both sectors should be a desire to intervene and assist when any child has difficulty in moving forward.

The key to all this is, indeed, flexibility. But, instead of flexibility imposed from a distant galaxy called a Parliament (which is clearly a nonsensical way of going about it, equivalent to fly-fishing from an orbital spacecraft), flexibility should be rooted in each school and each classroom. To do that, all the unnecessary barriers of bureaucracy, the tendency for Government and local government to micro-manage, and the cat's cradle of targets need to be swept away.

This means less politics, not more. It means a radical redefinition of that tripartite system, rebalancing it so that Government sets the broad context and provides the resources, and local authorities provide support as required, largely by light touch regulation which ensures consistent quality and by providing back-up services when requested. This would leave schools to do the job they exist to do, bolstered by the professionalism and commitment of teachers who are not only trusted to succeed, but expected to do so.

The power in education would then be transferred to the school, lying within a collegiate staff working alongside an involved community. And where power lies, so should resources and the ability to decide. That is why South Lanarkshire is making the right changes, as long as the real intention is a major and perpetual shift towards local decision-making, local innovation and local control.

Flexibility is the word of the moment. But words are never as good as deeds. After the Westminster-orientated distraction of the coming election, the Scottish parties are going to have to get down to the issue of how they can set Scottish education free at last.

Perhaps a course in thinking skills for the relevant MSPs would be a good start. Dr McCall might use it as an advertisement to prove that even the most blinkered cases are not immune to the challenge of ideas.

Michael Russell is a writer and broadcaster.

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