A White Paper is promised on Scottish education later this term. Students of government used to be taught that White Papers presaged legislation, whereas Green Papers, a later invention, meant that the Government was undecided. Yet no one knows the real import of the education White Paper.
It will deal with contentious issues like selection by ability, though only within schools not between schools. But will it be followed by a Bill? Another Scottish education Bill, the parliamentary business managers would ask, surely we had one last session? There is not much time between now and the election, and the Queen's Speech will be expected to deal with important and time-consuming matters like gun control, following the Cullen report.
So is the White Paper over which civil servants are now labouring in effect an election manifesto prepared at taxpayers' expense? Impossible, the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department will respond. It is the well attested weaknesses in secondary schools which might prompt Government action, not the appeal to Tory voters of a get-tough-on-standards war cry.
There is, however, a feeling, encouraged by ministers' rhetoric, that there has been too much sloppiness on parade and that spit and polish must be the order of the day before the general's inspection, aka the general election. National testing in secondary schools? Slackness there, not many tests administered. Better apply the stick. Appraisal of teachers? Mixed picture, evidence of feet dragging (page five). Isn't it time for a boot up the backside? Well perhaps, sir, but appraisal is expensive and the local authorities haven't the cash.
The argument about appraisal seems to be still going on in the Scottish Office. The commonsense view, which is not necessarily the one that will prevail, is that education authorities have at least as much to gain from properly applied appraisal procedures as the Government. (Arguably, the unions also have much to gain if appraisal leads to better staff development and the identification of underperforming or unhappy teachers.) Therefore if authorities are labouring to introduce schemes it is because of cost and the upheaval of reorganisation. There is no link with reluctance to push national tests in the first two years of secondary school which authorities, like teachers, regard as of little value.
Schools and colleges must not get caught up in the frenzies of a pre-election period. The parties can vie for the education vote as much as they like. If they commit themselves to more money, so much the better provided their promised budgets for all services make sense. But it would be a mistake for the Conservatives, the only party able to do more than make speeches, to spend the coming months making policy out of the prejudices of backwoodsmen.