Setting a benchmark for the 21st century

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Accountability for teaching excellence demands a schools code that has more bite than bark, says Gordon Kirk.

IN Scotland, education has been traditionally seen as a partnership between central government, local government and schools. Two consultation papers from the Scottish Executive Education Department - one on the Schools (Scotland) Code (the "Code" paper), the other on National Priorities for Schools Education (the "Priorities" paper) - shed interesting light on how the department interprets the relationship between these partners.

Given the heavily interventionist stance adopted by the Scottish Office over many years, it comes as something of a surprise to encounter two official documents which, if anything, argue for an arm's length relationship. It is seen as a responsibility of the SEED to exert strategic leadership of the national system, for example, by articulating, after consultation, the national priorities for education; it is for authorities and schools to devise ways and means by which these targets are to be achieved.

Ministers, it is maintained, create the planning framework within which "each school, supported by its local authority, has the central responsibility for its own improvement and for raising standards". While the Executive might prescribe the key outcomes, it will not determine the processes for delivering these - "that is for local authorities and schools to determine for themselves".

While both documents are at one in asserting that ministers' primary concern must be with the "outcomes" of the educational system, they have differences of emphasis with regard to "inputs". Strikingly, the Code paper uses language which conveys an intolerant dismissiveness of attempts to control or specify input. It refers to "the outmoded detailed prescription of inputs"; it maintains that "schools should not be unduly constrained by regulations that either frustrate innovation or impose needless uniformity", and insists, finally, that the quality of a system is maintained by "establishing an effective planning framework and by quality assurance of the outcomes, rather than by regulating the detail of inputs and processes".

There is much here that is highly questionable. Of course, it is essential to have ways of assessing the quality of the outputs of an educational system. However, to be preoccupied with outputs is short-sighted, if only because, where the quality is low, however precisely measured, no amount of contemplating outputs will be much use in effecting the necessary enhancement of quality. That is what lies behind the dictum that, in building effective systems in education or anywhere else, we need "to design quality in, rather than inspect faults out".

Fortunately, the Priorities paper offers a more balanced perspective. Having asserted that "it is important to direct most attention to the outcomes that education is intended to achieve", in the next breath it acknowledges that "there are a number of key inputs that are central to elivering these key outcomes". These are a professional, well-motivated teaching force, making effective use of resources, modern buildings with the facilities to promote effective learning, engagement of parents, a positive ethos and schools as a safe and pleasant environment for learning.

How, then, are we to explain the dismissive attitude to inputs in the Code paper? It might be argued that it would prefer to eliminate those that are too prescriptive. The paper, after all, is really concerned to question whether there is any longer a need for a code, or a national regulatory framework, for the conduct of schools.

There are perhaps three grounds for maintaining a code. First, it affirms the existence of a national system of education. Second, a code specifies a basic level of provision and therefore defines an educational entitlement for all learners across the country. Third, the existence of a code provides a benchmark against which current provision can be assessed and as a means of bringing the providers of education to account.

Interpreted in this way, a code could easily represent a national statement on the inputs that are necessary to promote the effectiveness of the system. On that basis, the more specific the better.

The paper suggests that the current regulatory framework might be modified to permit employers to deploy those with a primary teaching qualification in the secondary school, and vice versa, and to permit secondary teachers "to teach outside the subjects in which they are formally qualified".

It has to be acknowledged that the established pattern has failed to take account of the curriculum developments which forge links between primary education and secondary education, and between secondary education and further education. Thus, it would be difficult to sustain the thesis that a person with a primary teaching qualification and significant experience of teaching a range of subjects would be professionally incapable of teaching the same range of subjects in the early years of the secondary school. It may be perfectly reasonable to have a regulatory framework which permitted such cross-sectoral teaching.

However, what are we to make of the suggestion that regulations should be relaxed to permit teachers to teach outside the subject in which they have a formal qualification? The paper suggests that "the considered application of the principle of suitable professional skills and appropriate subject knowledge is a more significant safeguard of educational quality".

There is a case, then, for retaining the code and modernising it so that it reflects our current assumptions regarding the improvement of education. The code, however, should eschew platitudinous generalisations. It should have bite in the sense that it sets out requirements unambiguously. It is, after all, one of the means of holding all of us - including the SEED - to account.

Professor Gordon Kirk is dean of the faculty of education, Edinburgh University.

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