We're still a contender

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Scotland needs to grasp the thorn of overriding political control to return its education system to heavyweight status, argues Joseph Kelly

Cineastes will recall a memorable scene in On the Waterfront, in which Terry Malloy says plaintively to his brother Charlie, who had bungled his boxing career: "I could have been a contender."

I feel the same way for Scottish education that Terry (Marlon Brando) felt for his career. For a while it looked good, but it has taken so many standing counts that I am unsure if it will be able to scrape a narrow points win in the next four years of coalition rule.

The announcement that Jack and Jim intend to dump national testing, though we know they won't, as part of their cuddle-up deal to live happily ever after, seems to me yet another blow aimed at the gradual and permanently ongoing process of improving Scottish education. There is another way to look at it. This joint effort to play the coalition game of political survival may end up as part of a process that threatens to dismantle Scottish education.

Since health and education became matters of consuming interest to national politicians, people now ask themselves whether we have an education system that is projected to the third millennium or to the third world. Our country of five million people, with an education system that rightly or wrongly has "a guid conceit" of itself, has no national curriculum. It has a set of guidelines which lack legal force.

The gestation period of 5-14 was longer than it takes for continents to be born, and these guidelines give advice to schools and teachers on how to organise learning and teaching that is not mandatory. While government inspectors report on schools' progress, their ability to influence policy has been reduced by the Scottish Executive partly because of union fears that they wield too much power and presumably are rivals, and partly because they are suspected of centralising tendencies.

Yet the same inspectors at least can give us some hints about where we stand. In their publication Improving Achievement in English Language in Primary and Secondary Schools, issued in January, they stated that, while there had been improvements in overall achievement, there was a need to improve writing and the ability to read and analyse texts, and to ensure that courses go beyond minimum assessment requirements. Their suggestion that the spread of attainment is too wide seems to confirm their diagnosis that there is a lack of consistency, and that tasks are pitched too low.

They don't say so but, if given the chance, they might prescribe some testing. So might others.

Parents, for example. Because teachers are engaged in the lengthy process of educating many children, they tend to forget that parents are less interested in the macro-organisation of national education but rather in the micro-organisation of the child who concerns them most - theirs. They realise their child has one chance at education. They probably approve of lifelong learning as an opportunity, but they want the best for their child now.

A test result shows, in however an obscure way, that progress has or has not been made better than a murmured comment that Johnny is doing well and will get there.

But wait. Has the Jack and Jim Show not negotiated away national testing, thus reverting monitoring of learning back, not to the stone age perhaps but to the grey world of personal response, intuition, gut reaction and teacher professionalism? What goes next as political fingers paw over the educational pie? If a formal structure that allowed some form of comparable measurement of achievement, however possibly flawed, and which took years to put into place, can almost overnight be pinballed through our politicians' negotiating tables, then end up down the hole, anything goes.

And it might just. If we do not grasp the thorn of overpowering political control, whether by professional politicians or as bad, by educational ones, as our schools' performance slowly declines, perhaps the last rites that should be read over it are "Requiem for a One-Time Heavyweight".

Joseph Kelly is a retired primary headteacher.

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