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Thinking big about reform

Disaffected teachers make for disaffected learners. So, to the extent that calm and consolidation in teaching were the hallmarks of the year that's awa, we can be reassured that at least one half of that equation is being tackled. The post-McCrone deal, despite hitches and glitches surrounding job-sizing and headteacher disgruntlement, has proved durable.

Next year will see the resumption of normal pay negotiations which teachers face in reasonable shape, being already ahead of the top salary point imposed by the review body south of the border. The active involvement by Scottish Executive officials and politicians, rather than their previously passive observation, was crucial in securing the 2001 agreement and we hope they don't return to their bad old ways. The nursery nurses dispute is a warning of what could await any reappearance of drift and disengagement.

The year saw the usual ephemeral issues which may appear but passions of the moment, such as the ending of nationally published exam results and the additional ministerial powers to impose HMI findings on schools and education authorities. The Additional Support for Learning Bill, on the other hand, could prove to be a challenging test of ministerial resolve: its principles have many friends but its practice few admirers.

But the Executive has yet to overcome disaffection in the classroom - and that's not just a matter of discipline. In their different ways, the three major initiatives last year which will bear fruit in the coming months are all designed to make learning more stimulating and put it centre stage.

These are the reforms of the curriculum, assessment and teacher training.

There are signs of battle lines being drawn already, particularly over curriculum and assessment. We have seen in our own columns the barricades being staffed in defence of modern languages and home economics; and there are deep reservations among many teachers about 3-14 assessment. As for teacher training, there are complex issues to be resolved surrounding course content, qualifications, structure and location - each of which could merit an inquiry on its own.

But whatever the outcome of these reforms, there are signs that central government in England as well as in Scotland is beginning to realise that policies will never amount to a hill of beans unless they take teachers with them. The arguments about the importance of school improvement and pupil achievement have been largely won, and the emphasis now should switch from setting artificial targets to supporting schools to build on their previous best. The days of easy but facile comparisons between schools should be pronounced dead.

It may be that the potential for advance lies in some of the other national priorities such as developing creativity, ambition and enterprise - although that means schools setting an example in their own endeavours. The new reformers should take some lessons in thinking big. These are not bad starting points for 2004 - from the seminal 1947 report of the Advisory Council on Education in Scotland: "Despite zealous teaching, there is much failure in the secondary school, because methods designed for the few are misapplied to the many. The problem . . . is to create the conditions of effective learning by ordinary children. Can this be secured by class instruction within a rigid timetable, a system that keeps children passive, imposes uniform tasks, withholds initiative, ignores the variation in attention-spans, is over-systematised and discourages co-operation?"

A Happy New Year, with thanks to all our readers for their support and encouragement in 2003.

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