Vouchers top Wilson hit-list

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The most urgent task facing Brian Wilson, the new Education Minister, will be to move quickly to reassure parents about Labour's commitment to abolish nursery vouchers. Labour wants to use the #163;70 million saved to guarantee nursery places for all four-year-olds and gradually achieve universal provision for three-year-olds.

Fortunately, the previous government' s timetable of issuing the vouchers "from early May" was overtaken by the election. Vouchers were partly funded by taking #163;40 million from council budgets and a quick mechanism, possibly in the form of a one-off direct grant to the councils, will presumably have to be found.

Abolition of vouchers was a Labour pledge throughout the UK as was phasing out assisted places to fund smaller classes in the first three years of primary. The 3,500 Scottish pupils now attending 53 private schools at a cost of #163;14 million in public funds will continue to do so, making only a gradual impact on class sizes.

Councils are legally bound to a "normal maximum" of 33 pupils in primaries and there are fewer large classes compared with England. But figures for 1995 showed that 79,600 P1-P3 children were in classes of more than 31, a proportion which was rising steadily.

Labour in opposition estimated that #163;5 million would have to be spent on extra teachers to redeem this pledge. The result would be 240 new posts, based on the #163;21,000 average cost of a primary teacher. There will, however, be additional costs as councils take in pupils who would otherwise have gone to independent schools.

The most pressing item from a purely Scottish point of view will be to hammer out a consensus on the way forward for the Higher Still programme. Councils, unions and secondary heads are now clamouring for implementation to be postponed by another year to August 1999. The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association last week committed itself to a boycott if ministers do not relent.

Helen Liddell, Labour's education spokesperson in opposition, said there should be a year's delay but not an indefinite postponement. The Government will have to reach an early decision on that and, if it sticks to the present timetable, consider whether to opt for implementation in stages or in full. Elizabeth Maginnis, Labour spokesperson on education for the local authorities, says a phased introduction would cause confusion. But directors of education are more sanguine.

The remaining immediate decisions arise out of consultations initiated by the previous Government on appraisal, undertaken by only 30 per cent of teachers, and national testing in S1 and S2, which was to be piloted next spring. Mrs Liddell wanted appraisal but not of a compulsory kind, while her education blueprint pledged to abolish testing in the early secondary years but "examine ways of improving assessment arrangements".

Decisions on appraisal are bound up with the wider issue of the future role of the General Teaching Council. Labour's manifesto said the GTC's constitution would be strengthened to include powers over staff development beyond teachers' initial probationary period.

Appraisal could be introduced by parliamentary regulations using powers available to the Secretary of State under the 1989 Self-Governing Schools etc (Scotland) Act. But any change to the GTC would require legislation. If it is decided to retain the broad shape of the 5-14 programme, ministers may still review the arrangements for assessment given Labour's pledge to develop a personal learning plan for every child.

The manifesto also said primary children should have "a grounding" in foreign languages and computing, implying a 5-14 curricular review, although resource implications would rule out an early start.

The whole panoply of published information for parents is also filling up the Education Minister's in-tray, and his advisers could well be happy at any suggestion that some of the national tables should be sacrificed - school costs and leaver destinations, for example.

Examination data, as well as having value-added information included, could also be customised for parents' benefit at school level; more parent-friendly information was one of the recommendations in last December's Scottish Office report on underachievement.

There will be clear implications for the Inspectorate's audit unit, which Labour wants to replace with a standards unit that will have a specifically proactive role in boosting standards. Mr Wilson will have to decide whether he wants to take on the promised reserve powers to close schools that fail to respond to remedial treatment.

Opting out is now dead in Scotland which may make school closures easier, although there is no commitment to abolish the legislation. The precise way in which the two self-governing schools will be managed is still unclear and Labour has been careful to avoid any commitment to returning them to council control, preferring the formula of "a new partnership with local authorities". The rest of the in-tray will fill up easily with a review of other Tory legacies on early intervention, lifelong learning and school security. This is in addition to Labour pledges on school boards and the review of teacher training which Mrs Liddell said was at the centre of "the whole crusade on standards".

An Education Minister who also holds the industry portfolio can be expected to keep a close eye on further education and training. There are a number of commitments to boost training as part of the welfare-to-work programme and set up a task force of educationists and industrialists to monitor national training targets.

FE colleges will remain independent although there is a promise to develop "a new strategic framework" for FE and end "needless competition between colleges".

Mr Wilson can then catch up on some sleep.

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