Two cheers for new consensus

9th July 1999 at 01:00
EDUCATIONAL reaction to the Scottish Executive's proposed Bill has been overwhelmingly positive, while the political opposition has been more grudging.

The professional consensus is that ministers have adopted a less "confrontational" stance towards teachers, symbolised by the absence of the plans outlined in January's White Paper to sack incompetent staff and send hit squads into failing schools.

The broad welcome even extends to the most potentially contentious proposal - to inspect education authorities and hold them accountable where schools are underperforming.

Danny McCafferty, education convener for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who strongly criticised such a move last week, is now reassured that there is to be "no imposed evaluation by HMI but an approach agreed with local authorities which will take account of local circumstances".

Keir Bloomer, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Education, said he had doubts over how useful inspections would prove to be.

But he commented: "We are committed to continuous improvement and are not afraid of being held accountable, so we don't oppose the concept of inspecting education authorities. We welcome the fact that there is to be a mechanism for involving authorities in the process."

The Educational Institute of Scotland might have been expected to approve, but its relations with HMI are at an all-time low. "The precise role of the Inspectorate in carrying out inspections of local authorities needs to be clarified," John Patton, the union's president, said. "In recent years, the haphazard extension of Inspectorate powers has meant quite unreasonable pressures on schools and teachers, without any tangible positive results."

But the EIS remains concerned at the conflicting roles of HMI in setting policy and then inspecting it, Mr Patton said. This point was echoed by Judith Gillespie, development manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, who is "seriously concerned" at the growing power of the Inspectorate.

However, Mrs Gillespie welcomed the attempt to set out the duties of government, local authorities and teachers. "That at least clarifies the different levels of responsibility so it is clearer where culpability lies," she said.

Educational comment focused on the tone of the consultative document and the acknowledgement that, as Mr Patton put it, "legislation alone will not raise standards and that Government and local authorities must go forward in partnership with teachers."

Mr Bloomer also welcomed the partnership approach, reflected in the emphasis on the importance of teachers and the parallel duties to be laid on councils and the Government to promote high standards. The move away from "meaningless number-crunching" in the target-setting exercise was another sign lessons had been learnt.

Mr Patton hoped that the more co-ordinated and better planned approach to education set out in the Bill would mean an end to "the plague of the unplanned initiative which comes from nowhere and it's then left to teachers to clear up the mess".

Mr McCafferty said the fact that the new plans are contained in an "Improvement Bill" acknowledges that the intention is to build on good practice which already exists in the system.

But Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, dismissed "all this hot air about being teacher-friendly". There was nothing in the Bill about helping the teacher in the classroom, he said, and the introduction of new powers surrounding local authorities was an acknowledgement that councils were failing children.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's education spokesperson, welcomed the consensual approach but said that legislation alone would not raise standards without adequate resources and smaller classes.

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