Skills development for the Tory candidate

7th February 1997 at 00:00
A White Paper usually precedes major legislation. It sets out the Government's case in more approachable form than the legalism of the subsequent Bill. But Raising the Standard promises little new. Instead, it suggests an exercise by which denizens of every nook and cranny in the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department were asked to set down positive developments since 1979 and anything that was in their in-tray.

Much emphasis goes on the "industry" side of the departmental remit, and that should serve as a useful reminder to schools and higher education which tend to forget the dualism. The White Paper is subtitled "skills development" as well as "education". There is more sign of innovation in training than elsewhere: students will be able to take skills vouchers to employers and colleges, and the Modern Apprenticeship scheme is to more than triple by 1999 to 10,000 places. Targets can offer a hostage to fortune, as recent disappointing statistics showed about progress towards SVQ goals, but the White Paper is clear about the direction in which employers and colleges must go.

Elsewhere the Government ploughs a familiar furrow. If the White Paper was intended to show continuing intellectual liveliness after 17 years in power, it largely fails. That is not necessarily bad. Changes advocated by ardent right-wingers would harm Scottish education. Fortunately, the White Paper does not propose compulsory ballots on school opt-outs.

The proposals that do appear have either been put forward before - extending the General Teaching Council's powers to include incompetence, compulsory appraisal of teachers, insistence on national tests in S1 and S2 - or have been so much talked about that their eventual appearance on paper is no surprise. The Educational Institute of Scotland is much upset by the replacement of the pay and conditions negotiating machinery with a review body, but many teachers neither expect nor fear much, and the local authorities will not be too distressed about losing a power that was more nominal than real.

A theme of the paper, however, is the relationship between providers, customers and central government. Local government is praised for innovations like early intervention schemes which can be copied nationally, but the general intention is to focus directly on schools and on colleges, whose progress since removal from council control is clearly meant as a pointer to the future. Local authorities will have their quality assurance schemes put to a national test by HMI.

The White Paper will have a compulsory readership, Conservative candidates. For them it will be an addendum to the campaign manual. Its statistics will be trotted out as a defence against accusations of underfunding and elitism. But given that all Government documents in a pre-election period are related to the party manifesto, how does Raising the Standard equate with Michael Forsyth's embrace of the Saltire? Despite constant references to the Secretary of State's own achievements, there is a measure of restraint. Perhaps conscious of the Government's low standing with educationists, he even proposes a revived Advisory Council: odd, since the postwar heyday of the previous council was a time of non-partisan change.

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