Six years that shook the classroom

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
TIME to move on. It's been both a privilege and enormously enjoyable to have had the opportunity to contribute regularly to this column for more than six years: a total of 111 articles. Willis Pickard was the most obliging of editors. "Write on whatever you like, Astrid" was my only instruction: although I knew he liked the political pot to be stirred just a bit whenever an election loomed.

Holiday times the world was my oyster: from mindstore to marshmallow test; emotional intelligence to enterprise; Ulug Begh to Oberammergau; Santa Claus to Genghis Khan; Fringe reviews to virtual felines . . . Holiday pieces in their infinite variety were probably the most fun - just because in general the great and serious themes of Scottish education develop slowly - and with a fair degree of predictability according to the political circumstance of the day. My first piece appeared on the eve of rebirth of single-tier councils in 1995: a new beginning after the failure of the regions to grip the public imagination; or, under old-style socialism, to curb the terrifying levels of bureaucracy which for decades bled resource away from the classroom.

The 90s were interesting years, and their history has still to be written. Mid-decade saw the departure of possibly Scottish education's most radical reforming figure since the war - first as education minister, and then as Secretary of State. Michael Forsyth was the man who first said that 11 years (from age 5-16) was too long in a child's life to go without external testing of what and whether the child had learnt. That lesson, 12 years on, has still not been fully digested in Scotland: see this month's report to the Executive which confirms the long-held guesstimate that nearly one in four Scots adults continues to have major problems in everyday living with reading and number.

The conclusive endorsement of his legacy is the fact that so much of what he argued for lives on in the policies of reinvented Scottish Labour. School choice and, increasingly, specialisation; partnership for parents; an ending to the school quality lottery; teacher appraisal; public private partnerships - all these, so bitterly contested in their time, have since been repackaged and represented as everyday currency.

Even two of the most sacred Scottish cows of all would seem to be losing some of their hallowed inviolacy. Various commentators, including headteacher Brian Toner in this column, now feel able to come out and recommend the practice of setting: for example maths setting in P6-P7. Or consider the recent surprising pronouncement of the former depute general secretary of the EIS: "specialisation in upper secondary could be the salvation of the Scottish comprehensive". Ideas are indeed shifting in surprising places, with perhaps a glancing look at developments in the south.

This is a fascinating crossroads for Scottish education. It is natural at this time for the Executive to want go its own way with not too much time spent on analysing increasingly diverse approaches in England, to say nothing on what we fail to learn as a nation about how European countries tackle similar problems.

But it would be good if a profession growing steadily stronger in self-confidence and public esteem would now take the lead in allowing education policy to grow, free from political correctness, from the grass-roots experience of practising teachers themselves.

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