Who cares what colour the cat is?

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year. Give me a light that I may safely tread into the unknown." And he replied: "Go out into the darkness and put your hand in the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way." There are no prizes for which American poet wrote these lines, but certainly there is food for thought in them for those whose charge is to continue slicing bloat from the now not quite so fattened golden calf we call Glasgow's education budget, and who have opened out to the public their plans for modernisation and renewal.

The city, before it hits the millennium at all, doesn't just face a crossroads. It faces a series of mazes before it can put its hand on its heart and say with meaning that it is providing the best education for the children of Glasgow. And while discussion meetings on the general plan for secondary education may have been perhaps less than smooth, the particularities of change promise to be fraught. The messages that come through under a barrage of soundbites, "putting children first; regeneration through education; one city, one catchment", are clear. Money saved from closures will be used to create a leaner, fitter secondary education. It will be used to create a gulag of specialism schools, and it will be used to make information technology mean something for our children.

As well as that, it will maintain its denominational schools strategically sited throughout the city. Taken together with everything else that the city faces, there is a lot of sleight of hand needed to keep all this in the air at once. And if it all works, a similar process will be on the cards for the primary schools. The main plank from which the leap of faith is required in order to close the gap between rhetoric and reality is the city's redefinition of what comprehensive education means. I am sure hardshell ideologues are biting their arms in frustration as they witness what seems to be the dismantling of the painstakingly built Chinese boxes of comprehensive schooling built up over the past 30 years.

The city's plans to morph into some new kind of comprehensive lifeform on wheels, breaking away from its predecessor's strictures on travel limits and abandoning catchment areas, means that we could be looking at the demise of the expression "local comprehensive". It raises, too, questions about how secondaries are to cope with a now kaleidoscopic shake-up of differing skills and abilities, different aspirations and expectations in addition to what they already have, and worse, coming from all directions.

In short, it raises the possibility not of a mixed-ability overload, but rather of actual demise. Achievement For All discriminates positively in favour of setting and its concomitant, whole-class teaching, and is seen as a prime motivator towards progress and achievement. Perhaps it is the most core-of-the-matter methodology to cope with the problems raised by 1996's Standards and Quality reports which found a general lack of challenge in the early secondary years and poor arrangements for meeting pupil needs, insufficient account of primary school experience (to me this means ignoring national testing results) and weaknesses of attainment in English and mathematics. As Den Ping suggested with a judicious blend of pragmatism and good sense: "Who cares what colour the cat is, if it catches the mouse?" Glasgow's plans put a new gloss on "flux", and I don't think it is too much of an exaggeration to suggest that virtual reality has now become the only reality. The presenters of new perceptions have so far only ridden the tiger. Their new year's task of getting down to local brass tacks may mean taking the tiger by the tail, because the tectonics of considering all aspects of local feeling will never be covered adequately, given our local propensity to shoot messengers. They are stepping into darkness, but there is a light at the end.

Before they reach it, though, they have to find out the meaning of the saying "there are no atheists in the consultation trenches".

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