ARE we seeing real signs at last that the powers that be are shifting into listening mode north and south of the border? In England, the very title of the new primary strategy, Excellence and Enjoyment, implies a more relaxed approach. Indeed, the tyranny of controls there is beginning to be eroded and may be said to be moving in the Scottish direction: the official key stage 2 targets for 11-year-olds are being reduced in status to aspirations and there is to be a trial of using key stage 1 tests for seven-year-olds to confirm teachers' judgments.
In Scotland, in what may prove one of the more significant statements of the year, the report on special needs by HMI and Audit Scotland (page four) officially acknowledges what schools have been saying for years: increasing inclusion and raising attainment may be admirable policies in themselves but they do not necessarily reinforce each other. As it points out, "highly inclusive and effective schools can give the impression of lower achievements against national standards".
The inspectorate and auditors have asked ministers to rethink how the achievements of special needs pupils are reflected in exam tables. By coincidence (perhaps) Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary in England, has announced a consultation on precisely the same issue. The worst outcome from this, of course, would be a separate SEN table - the very antithesis of inclusion.
These moves point to the necessity of having valued-added measures. At one point it looked as though Scotland risked being left behind the other home countries in the development of this more rounded view of performance. The coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, however, talks encouragingly of "promoting improved assessment of schools' progress as a better measure than national league tables".
But the promise of embedding a broader "achievement agenda" in the education system, rather than just one of attainment, depends on the successful implementation of the five national priorities. Let us hope that lessons have been learnt from attainment approaches of the past decade and that the other priorities are not reduced to a set of imposed targets. The new ministerial team should remember that the most successful initiative of recent years has been early intervention - made successful by schools because schools believed in it.