Wee cosy chat is insufficient;Leading Article

1st October 1999 at 01:00
Consultation is now up there with partnership, inclusion and access - concepts to be challenged at our peril. In the past two weeks the Scottish Parliament's education and lifelong learning committees have promised to be fully consultative, and the Cubie inquiry into student finance is putting such ambitions into practice (TESS last week).

What has been less evident is what impact these consultations have and whether they will ring any significant changes. Should Cubie be swayed by the 600 closely-argued submissions his committee has received, or by the 13 public meetings which can always be dismissed as "unrepresentative"? The Parliament, too, has to ask some hard questions. Although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires consulting young people about decisions affecting them, how far does the education committee of MSPs go?

Fiona Macleod, an SNP member, probed this relentlessly at the first public hearing of the committee. But as Ian Jenkins of the Liberal Democrats asked: do young people really want to be bothered working out whether Douglas Osler should inspect education authorities or not?

Consultation, in other words, has to be sensible and sophisticated. But it must also mean more than just a wee chat or a cloak for predetermined outcomes. Tokenism is too common, as is demonstrated by a teacher's anecdote in this week's School Management (ScotlandPlus, page five). The procedures surrounding school closures laid down by Westminster gave consultation a bad name. There is a burden of expectation on Cubie and the Scottish Parliament to give it a better one.

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