So far so good, but what comes next?

13th February 2004 at 00:00
With more investment in schools, the big debate is where to use it to the best effect, says Wendy Alexander

The big change in Scottish education has been a move away from the structures debate that dominated the 1980s and 1990s, when the discussion centred on school boards, opting out, budgets, selection, assisted places, various exams and school passports. Some ideas that were raised were good; some were bad. Lots of them, however, were simply irrelevant.

What parents care about is what is happening in their child's classroom and that is where we have seen much progress in the past seven years. First, the teacher in that classroom is now well paid, better motivated and better recognised, and class sizes are smaller. In part, classes are smaller as a result of falling rolls, but more teachers have also been hired.

A child starts off in a better position in primary 1 because they have had the opportunity to benefit from nursery education. The classroom itself is often part of a new school or is about to be part of a new school. There is likely to be a classroom assistant in the playground at lunchtime. In most cases, the work of the anti-bullying network means that there is much less bullying.

There are more after-school clubs and we are about to introduce summer camps. We are starting to make it easier for children who are making the transition from primary school to secondary school, and when they move to secondary school the curriculum is becoming more relevant at the top of the school.

We can be proud of such developments, which are ways in which the focus has shifted from structures to the classroom experience. Obviously, more is being done, but so far, so good.

If the focus has been on the classroom experience, what do we have to do next? Lest any accuse me of complacency, I offer a couple of suggestions about where we need to go if we are to keep moving at the same pace that we have set. For all the Tories' protestations, they want to fix things for a few parents to set up their own schools, or for a few pupils, but we should address altogether bigger challenges for the whole school, the whole system and all children.

There are three challenges. First, we must focus not on what is taught, but on how things are taught. We know that the best schools are those in which there is personalised learning for every pupil. If every pupil is to have personalised learning, we need a coherent approach to whole-school improvement in which the emphasis is put on the school to start self-evaluating its performance. We will think about the role of inspectors, but hard-edged self-evaluation by schools is the key to focusing not simply on what is taught, but on how things are taught.

The second challenge is to strip out clutter and duplication if we are to release local initiative and energy. I am talking not just about a few schools, but about all schools. There are responsibilities for us in respect of reducing central direction from Government and providing clarity about the future responsibilities of local government - how its value added is real and how its responsibilities are relevant. Views from ministers over the next year on such matters would be helpful.

The third challenge is perhaps the most controversial - I refer to the productivity challenge in schools. Many people think that productivity is a pretty dirty word in education circles, that it is a concept for the commercial world and that public services are concerned with ambitions that are so complex and diverse that they cannot be reduced to productivity issues. They might argue that what matters is quality and service.

However, such a line of argument is unconvincing and a touch complacent.

Unless we are willing to discuss, define and deliver educational productivity, we will not be able to demonstrate that new investment in education is succeeding in transforming life chances rather than just making a marginal difference.

I do not have time to address all the ways in which productivity in education can be addressed, but we must recognise the central role of new investment. The SNP is simply frightened of such a debate, as the issues are too difficult. The Tories are unprepared to engage in the debate, as it must be recognised that additional investment makes the difference.

However, the coalition parties are up for the debate.

There should be an honest debate about how we use increasing resources to maximum effect. Such a debate holds the key to excellence and equity in our education system and I commend it to ministers.

Wendy Alexander MSP is the former Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning. This article formed the basis of her speech in last month's parliamentary debate on education.

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