Where Labour went wrong

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Fred Forrester warns that no thought has been given to a compact with teachers. The most hopeful feature of the Labour document Every Child is Special: A Compact for Scotland's Future is that it is described as a consultation paper. This must mean that it is open to discussion and alteration and that something better may emerge. Since the Educational Institute of Scotland now intends to meet Labour representatives for a discussion about the document, this brief analysis must necessarily be personal.

Every Child is Special is a peculiarly unsatisfactory document. While comments and suggestions are to be sent to Helen Liddell, Labour's spokesperson on education in Scotland, it is clear that Mrs Liddell is not the sole author. Analysis suggests that a draft by a Scottish working group was subjected to scrutiny and amendment at United Kingdom level, with a view to avoiding any overt philosophical conflict between Tony Blair and David Blunkett in England and the policy to be pursued by Labour's Scottish Office team. Another criticism is that the paper is thin on detail, more a series of sound bites than a serious contribution to educational thinking. Proposals with the most profound implications are put forward and not followed through, even to the point where they might achieve minimum credibility.

There are positive features: a strong commitment to the distinctive nature of Scottish education (although this is undermined elsewhere); a commitment to comprehensive education and the abolition of the assisted places scheme; a strong section on nursery education, including opposition to vouchers and a commitment to provide a nursery education place for every three and four-year-old; a willingness to consider a moratorium on curricular development and a further delay in implementing Higher Still; a commitment to the role of Her Majesty's Inspectorate and, by implication, a rejection of any OFSTED-type arrangement north of the border (although some of the detailed proposals would do nothing to enhance the status of the Inspectorate in the eyes of teachers); a very positive attitude to community education and to "adult returners".

However, the shortness of the above list and the fact that certain welcome commitments are qualified or partially contradicted speaks volumes about the character of the paper as a whole. The first area for criticism is the anonymous "compact" with school students. This is little more than an extended sound bite about raising the expectations of children, maximising the potential of every boy and girl and the integration of education with child health care and social services, but it does have a nasty tail about assessment of each child soon after entry to primary education, with parental involvement and with targets being set. Does this mean some kind of national testing in primary 1?

Even if it does not, there is still an implication that pupils will begin to be separated by ability as they progress through their school careers. There is a reference, for example, to children being able to read and count by the age of seven (another national test?). Perhaps the most serious, albeit impractical, suggestion is that "appropriate teaching methods will be agreed with parents". With classes of up to 33, how on earth can the varying views of parents on teaching methods be accommodated?

These suggestions are completely at odds with the philosophy of Scottish comprehensive education as it has developed over more than a quarter of a century. The idea of "the parent advocate" has no obvious origins. As a concept, it is not fleshed out. This person is to be designated by the school. Does this mean by the school's management? The advocate will preferably (but not definitely) be a non-teacher and will represent parents "who may feel intimidated or alienated from the system". Despite the vagueness surrounding the method of appointment, the advocate will have oversight of the operation of pupil compacts.

In a later part of the paper, school boards are declared to be generally a failure. They are to be replaced by "school commissions". Although the detail is woefully short, it would appear that these would be mini quangos, with elected members outnumbered by representatives from social work, health, industry and local authority. In the same section of the paper, there is an attempt to boost the role of local authorities and a commitment to bring Scotland's two opted-out schools within "the new and developing local partnership", whatever that means.

The section on "devolved management" contains only one paragraph on that topic. A "financial and needs audit" will form part of a report by each school to parents, the local authority and the education minister. This section is otherwise devoted to school ethos, school discipline, exclusion and truancy. Homework is placed on an undesirable pedestal. Each pupil, presumably from primary 1, is to have a homework diary. Parents are to receive guidance on supporting children's homework. "Homework clubs" are to become an accepted part of after-school provision. This is associated with, and not adequately distinguished from, the supported study initiatives already being taken by several local authorities. There is no recognition of the fact that homework may simply represent an overspill from an overcrowded curriculum.

Among the most alarming sections for teachers are those entitled "Every teacher a committed teacher" and "The role of the headteacher". Here there is really a serious encroachment across the border of the now familiar English rhetoric of "failing schools" and "failing teachers". Research in Scotland gives no credibility to the concept of the failing school.

A study by Grampian Region and the Centre for Educational Sociology showed that the achievements of schools were almost entirely a reflection of the socio-economic status of their pupil populations. It is really surprising that a Labour paper has nothing to say about the relationship between academic achievement and socio-economic status, which is now regarded by educationists as perhaps the principal issue in the Scottish educational field.

Local authorities and professional associations will be asked to produce a blueprint by which failing teachers will be removed from the profession "with the minimum of fuss". There will be discussions on extending the role of the General Teaching Council beyond the probationary period. No consideration is apparently given to the intolerable conditions which can cause a teacher to fail, such as struggling with oversize classes in an underfunded system.

The suggestion that headteachers should have to acquire a new qualification before being appointed to their posts has no Scottish genesis. It is a pure Blunkettism. No body in Scotland has ever suggested the need for such a qualification. The rigorous and competitive procedures for headteacher appointments guarantee better than any paper qualification that those selected for the jobs are able to carry them out. Labour would also strengthen headteacher appraisal, using year-on-year targets and involving HMIs. Where a headteacher was deemed to have run out of steam, they would be offered "a dignified route into another job or retirement".

An omission from the document is any reference to improving the funding of Scottish education. This is only explicable in terms of the "Gordon Brown veto", as shadow Chancellor, on any pre-election spending commitment. However, it is a logistic impossibility to discuss any kind of plan for the future of Scottish education without looking at the funding issue. To omit this issue at this time only leads to cynicism and an undermining of belief in the party political system.

Fred Forrester is depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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