Tories opt for a U-turn on policy

The Scottish Conservatives this week repositioned their party as the friend of teachers in a remarkable display littered with more than one implied mea culpa.

They acknowledge "much dissatisfaction with recent policy which has been interventionist and intrusive", although it is not clear whether that is a castigation of the 18 months since the election or the previous 18 years. The traditional party of low taxation then makes at least 18 specific spending commitments.

The education section of the policy proposals, produced by the Rifkind commission and published today (Friday), concludes: "Many core problems within current education are associated with poor morale among the teaching profession."

The trend in new Conservative thinking, "away from structures and towards people", was outlined to The TES Scotland a few weeks ago by Brian Monteith in his first interview as education spokesman for the Scottish Tories.

The commission, chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, declares: "We aim to provide policies that allow teachers to enjoy greater responsibility for the day-to-day running of schools and which rebuild trust between parents, pupils and teachers."

The wide-ranging proposals could almost be confused with an unexceptional document from the unions, although the influence of Elizabeth Smith, the party's former education spokeswoman, appears evident. Ms Smith was secretary to the commission and taught modern studies at George Watson's College in Edinburgh before becoming an adviser to Sir Malcolm.

There are references to collaboration between the independent and state school sectors, an emphasis on team games, a call for more whole-school assemblies and a suggestion that moral philosophy should be taught in the fifth and sixth "forms".

The report is a sober account of Tory policy preferences and does not indulge in political point-scoring. But it does imply an apologia for the party's 18-year record in office, finding that teachers are "disillusioned because of the authoritarian manner in which some legislation has been enacted".

The commission's report, which does not yet constitute the party's manifesto for the Scottish parliament, favours a review of teachers' and lecturers' salaries as a matter of "urgent priority". More money must be found to raise pay and attract high-quality graduates to the profession, as well as to reduce overcrowded classrooms.

The report adds that teachers and lecturers should have a better system for keeping abreast of developments in their own subjects. Off-the-job training is suggested, but lasting "for weeks rather than days".

Recent curriculum change is attacked as "bureaucratic and under-resourced", and is pinpointed as a major source of unrest. "These concerns have done much damage to morale and therefore a balance is sought between another period of radical change and a complete moratorium," the commission states.

But the Tories will not ditch the main existing curricular developments of 5-14, Higher Still and modern languages in the primary. Not surprisingly, the commission sticks by the three Rs as a guiding principle and calls for "a return to streaming in certain key areas of the curriculum".

The curricular proposals do not follow the Anglocentric path associated with the English Tories. Students should have a good understanding of Scottish history and its contribution to British, European and world history, the report states. There should be a particular focus on the European heritage and also an appreciation of other cultures.

The importance of extracurricular activities also features strongly, reflecting another influence from the independent sector. Pupils should be offered at least one activity from upper primary onwards and teachers should be paid for supervision.

"It is recognised that the days of expecting staff to undertake extracurricular work as well as additional classroom tasks and receive no remuneration are over," the commission states.

No party policy is complete these days without reference to standards and discipline. The wholesale denunciation of falling standards redolent of past Tory statements is missing; instead standards and discipline "are strongly perceived by the public to be declining". The document even acknowledges that "standards" are hard to define.

The Tories, who introduced published information on school performance, appear to be having second thoughts about league tables too. "There should be less stress on them as the sole indicator of success," the party states.

On standards, the paper suggests electronic registration in schools with truancy problems, more special units for persistent offenders, and after-school detention for children who are an "ongoing nuisance".

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