Still crazy even after all these reviews

27th April 2001 at 01:00
If a pupil is taught for 27 hours by teachers who each have class contact for a maximum 23 hours within a 35 hour working week, with an indeterminate percentage left to the teachers' discretion, what is the janitor's middle name?

While such a conundrum is exercising greying temples up and down the land, young Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's director of education, has got it all sussed, and in colour too. His engaging presentation at last month's headteachers' conference in Grangemouth lent conviction to his arguments. He was off to negotiate the 136 hours per year available after deductions with the natives back in Coatbridge. If it works there, it will probably be OK in Tobermory.

Simultaneously, committees are discussing the implications of the McCrone deal for conditions, now that the euphoria of the pay element is waning. How many hours do you count for parents' evenings? Is supported study included or paid for separately? What counts as continuous professional development?

It will be a bit tricky if conflicting scenarios emerge across the crazy patchwork of 32 authorities. Maybe there will be a strong steer at national level to ensure consistency. If so, why are we all beavering away at the same problem? For such a wee country, solutions in education can be frustratingly complex.

Our impenetrable galaxy of school qualifications becomes more mind-boggling with each passing year. The Scottish Executive has hailed Higher Still as alternatives to Standard grade qualifications, with band 1 being the cat's pyjamas at Standard grade, while Intermediate 1 is the poor relation of Higher Still. Is it any wonder that employers are still demanding O-levels?

The decision of the rechristened inspectorate of education in Scotland to come calling every six or seven years is fine, and I will have the kettle on around 2004. However, there remains an obligation on education authorities to refine their individual quality assurance arrangements. "Thirty-two review systems hanging on a wall" could be thei refrain.

Edinburgh has developed a proposal whereby local inspections (which must never ever be referred to as such!) would dovetail with HMI incursions. While this is a perfectly rational response, it begs the question whether a country of six million people needs two tiers of scrutiny for its schools.

The responsibility for monitoring schools should either be vested in local authorities (but not almost three dozen of them), with HMI inspecting local authorities or HMI should retain the job, make recommendations for longer-term objectives and review them at the mid-term. Under the current regime, we are likely to be subjected to a surfeit of assessment, just like our pupils.

The solution to the Scottish Qualifications Authority's continuing difficulties is not more general managers, more computers or even more exam markers, but less assessment. Courses are exsanguinated by the requirement to test everything in sight and teachers are crippled by excessive marking.

Our national system of certification, including Standard grade, was designed for the 1970s, when most young people left full-time education at 16. In Holy Rood, as elsewhere, the staying-on rate from S4 to S5 has rocketed in recent years and the percentage of leavers joining the workforce has correspondingly plummeted. The school leaving age has almost imperceptibly raised to 17.

Will we continue to overload our national examination body with the burden of tens of thousands of pupils who are simply progressing to the next stage of the secondary school? We have created a monster which is devouring its designers, but we continue to indulge its insatiable appetite.

On the subject of bureaucratic madness, I was heartened to see that the national primarysecondary transfer document includes a section for progress in Gaelic, which will presumably be left blank for 99.9 per cent of pupils. However, it was strange that the word Gaelic was written in English.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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