David Henderson reports from the Napier UniversityTESScotland 'Educating Scotland' conference.
One of the Government's key education advisers has signalled the demise of mixed-ability teaching in the first two years of secondary.
Astrid Ritchie, chair of the Conservative party's education policy committee, addressing last week's Napier UniversityTES Scotland "Educating Scotland" conference, called for better integration between primaries and secondary on the 5-14 programme and underlined the Government's commitment to action.
With ministers set to publish their plans for S1S2 teaching within the next month, Mrs Ritchie announced that "the five levels in primary should fit naturally into a culture of setting in secondary".
Malcolm Chisholm, Labour frontbencher and former secondary teacher, insisted his party had no difficulty with setting. "There has always been setting in schools; there's nothing revolutionary about that," he said.
Mrs Ritchie, who was substituting at the Edinburgh conference for Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, also re-emphasised imminent Government action on low expectations in deprived areas, discipline and anti-social behaviour, and encouragement for schools to become more enterprising in the use of their buildings. It is expected the White Paper on Scottish education this autumn will feature such plans.
Mrs Ritchie said her party was delighted so many Government initiatives had been achieved through consensus. Curriculum reform, devolved school management, teacher appraisal, nursery voucher pilots, homework and a focus on standards had all been advanced with the local authorities' co-operation. There was "solid educational progress and evidence of rising standards".
However, she hinted at further action to increase the extent of budgetary devolution to schools and on the promoted post structure in secondaries, a theme often mooted by Labour local authorities. "There are eight different levels of promoted post in the secondary school. That cannot be right. It's not only inflexible but it ties up resources that are needed," Mrs Ritchie said.
Mr Chisholm, Labour's constitutional spokesman, said his party was more concerned about standards than structures, although he repeated the assertion that any opted-out schools would be brought back within local authority control under a future Labour government.
Any extra resources in his party's administration would go towards early years' education, financed by the scrapping of the assisted places scheme. "More than 50 per cent of children in the scheme were in the private system anyway," the Leith MP said. He warned that after the election, the public sector debt was expected to be around Pounds 30 billion.
Donald Gorrie, a Liberal Demo-crat councillor and parliamentary candidate in West Edinburgh, accused Mrs Ritchie of skating over the authorities' financial problems. "We have been cut year on year until the standard of provision is unacceptable," he said. The number of teachers was decreasing, along with the supply of books and resources, support for learning in deprived communities, and areas like outdoor education.
Only his party had been "partly honest" in advocating more taxation to increase spending on education "if necessary". A Scottish parliament would allow a sharper focus on education, Mr Gorrie argued.
But Mrs Ritchie replied that 30 per cent more was spent on local government in Scotland than south of the border.
Such high levels of spending depended on maintaining the "Barnett formula", the quotient for working out overall government spending in Scotland. Councils had to face closing schools and making links with the private sector.
From the teaching perspective, Ronnie Smith, Educational Institute of Scotland general secretary, appealed for more coherent planning of innovation at Government level. Specific resources at school level had to accompany policy initiatives.
Judith Gillespie, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, contrasted the Government's trumpeting of its drive on parents' involvement and school boards with the current reality. Local government reform, she said, had achieved the aims the Government wanted after boards, modelled on the governor system in England, had failed to undermine councils' control of schools.
"School boards are not quite as necessary as they once were. If you look at school boards against their original purpose, you have to say they have not delivered for the Government," Mrs Gillespie told the conference.
Parents had no desire to run schools or stand for board elections, were largely supportive of teachers and rejected opting out unless the school faced closure. But it was not all negative, she said. The quality of headteacher appointments had not declined since parents had become involved in the selection process, and disclosing the school budget to parents had been "an amazing eyeopener". Boards had also been instrumental in fighting the Government over national testing and in campaigning for more resources.
by David Henderson