Who's the purist at distilling the basics?

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Neil Munro contrasts and compares the heads of the English and Scottish inspectorates as they took the stage in Edinburgh

CHRIS WOODHEAD, head of the schools inspectorate in England, is the either-or man. Teachers must concentrate on polishing the basics and imparting knowledge; everything else is "displacement activity".

Douglas Osler, his Scottish counterpart, represents the "both-and" strand. Raising standards goes hand in hand with social inclusion and enhancing the professionalism of teachers. A "world class" system must be, to coin a phrase, inclusive of all these.

Perhaps significantly, Mr Woodhead began his address to last Friday's "Education for the Millennium" conference, sponsored by The Scotsman, by listing the weaknesses of the English system. Mr Osler chose Scottish strengths as his starter for 10.

While the hymn sheet seemed to provide the same musical score, the notes were certainly different on occasion. Mr Osler was determined not to be upstaged by Mr Woodhead, who was clearly hired to administer a good kick up the backside of complacency.

The Scottish chief made it clear he would be emphasising similar themes but added: "My perspective as a Scot on home ground is rather different in considering the improvements we have to make in Scottish education, not least because I know the system more intimately and have to live with the fallout."

Mr Osler was more concerned to strike a balance between avoiding charges of complacency on the one hand and teacher-bashing on the other. Mr Woodhead clearly could not have cared less. And, while proclaiming no intention of commenting on Scottish education, he frequently invited reaction to the English experience which, by implication, posed the only questions that mattered.

Mr Osler set his canvas against a wider background, citing the interaction between Scotland and the rest of the world. He noted that educationists from 31 countries visited Scotland in the past year, apparently lured by interest in our quality assurance arrangements. Scottish inspectors had been dispatched to other countries to see what lessons could be learnt.

Mr Woodhead's "either-or" style was evident from the start. His central concerns are that 60per cent of English pupils leave primary school with literacy and numeracy levels below their required grades, that too many (15 per cent) leave at the age of 16 with no qualifications after 18,000 hours of schooling, and that academic standards do not always satisfy the universities.

"I often wonder what is the point of talking about lifelong learning or the importance of transferable skills when so many of our pupils haven't mastered the basic tools of learning," he said. Among his examples of "displacement activities" which overlooked real learning were the school effectiveness industry, the setting of targets and school planning.

Mr Osler said tackling the basics and lifelong learning were both important. But, referring to Scottish plans for new community schools, he made it clear that they "are still schools and have as their first objective the educating of pupils to the highest standards".

For Mr Woodhead, the three Rs were the bedrock of social inclusion. The rhetoric that "all must have prizes" was part of the progressive thinking and unworkable classroom methodologies such as individualised teaching which had "corrupted" education.

Mr Osler countered that involving all pupils in learning and giving them opportunities to shine "doesn't mean that all will be successful when they are included".

Partnership also received short shrift from Mr Woodhead who said it was an ideal that could not always be realised. Any Government serious about educational reform must exhibit political courage and confront opposition.

The Conservatives were right to force through the national curriculum in England and Wales, and the current administration may have to do the same over performance pay for teachers.

Mr Woodhead did not expose the doubts he is said to harbour about the Scottish system which combines school self-evaluation with external inspection.

Mr Osler believes this is a real strength and even Mr Woodhead accepted the two processes were complementary. The OFSTED head, however, said that it was the publication of exam results and more regular inspection of schools which had done more than anything else to raise standards and forced schools to be less accepting of shortcomings.

Mr Osler did not demur and made it clear that "self-evaluation is not Scots for self-delusion or a euphemism for self-congratulation". It was then inevitable that the role of the inspectorate north of the border came in for scrutiny as Mr Woodhead made a virtue out of OFSTED's independence from the Department for Education and Employment, saying it allowed him more objectivity "which Douglas, through no fault of his own, does not enjoy".

This criticism of HMI as both policy adviser and policy adjudicator is beginning to rankle and Mr Osler repeated his declaration (TESS, last week) that "we don't make policy - ministers do".

He was backed up later in the day by Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, who said that HMI's evidence and advice was influential, crucial and invaluable - and "highly accountable".

There were moments of unity. Mr Osler's general summation was that Scottish schools "serve a lot of children very well but don't serve all children well enough". Mr Woodhead's version was there is "too big a gap between the best schools and the worst".

Mr Osler may reflect that he should share a platform with Chris Woodhead more often. Critics who believe he is the abrasive anti-teacher zealot may feel rather differently when confronted with the alternative.

After hearing both, Donald Christie, senior lecturer in educational studies at Jordanhill, said he was glad he worked in Scotland and not England - although that followed a characteristic gibe from Mr Woodhead about the need for the best schools to be more involved in teacher training.

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