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Transforming the state of the nation

As secondary heads gather for their conference, Jim Dalziel looks at the challenges facing Scotland's schools

I recently celebrated 19 years as a secondary head, a role I now combine with that of a "new learning community" principal. The celebration was modest. I was on my own and only remembered, while doing yet another draft policy paper at 1am with a trusty glass of Chilean Sauvignon at my side. This provoked some "state of the nation" visioning, as we now say, combined with what I hope are some useful practical thoughts on the way ahead.

The first of these is that literacy is the key to success. Even more resources than before must be concentrated in the early years to ensure we get it right from the start - ironically, though, it may be that we should look to approaches in continental Europe where formal teaching of reading is delayed until children are more mature, normally at around seven years of age.

Improved pupil-staff ratios and the use of the most effective and proven methodologies such as synthetic phonics are the key. It is unacceptable that after seven years of elementary education we still have significant numbers of pupils moving on to secondary education with reading ages two years and more behind their chronological ages.

A significant date for this current intake of five-year-olds might be 2012, but new targets should be set for all pupils currently within the system.

Support must be provided to ensure that all primary schools have access to the most effective resources to support the development of core skills.

A second priority should be targeting improved transition between primary and secondary by focusing on the period between 10 and 14 years of age.

Despite the time and resources devoted to the 5-14 programme, it has failed to achieve its goals, particularly in the secondary sector. To this end, we must look towards removing unnecessary barriers to the use of primary and secondary trained staff in a flexible manner at this vital transition stage, which will allow schools to focus on the needs of individuals and groups even more effectively than they are able to do now.

Third, more effort should be directed towards the transition between pre-five and primary which must also be given greater resources. In Glasgow, "nurture" groups have been established to deal with the increased challenges facing teachers in the early years who have to deal with increased numbers of youngsters with emotional and behavioural issues before they can effectively benefit from a mainstream curriculum without disrupting the progress of others.

The nurture approach has been applauded: it is an aid to inclusion. It is, however, expensive and has to be supported in such a way that councils are not forced into making cuts in one part of an essential service to fund another. Inclusion is also expensive and it must be looked at over the long term. Short-term projects and funding will not be sufficient.

We have made great progress in honouring our commitment to providing a pre-five place for every three-year-old. We must build on this by ensuring that resourcing levels are at least at the level of statutory education services levels.

The contribution of community clubs, which is already showing promise in areas of Glasgow, should not be overlooked. Young people must be given the chance to become involved in a wide range of sports with routes into organised clubs and leagues to suit every ability level. We should not, however, limit the clubs to sports; we must also look at providing opportunities to become involved in music, art, drama, ICT and other activities.

Progress on the post-McCrone agreement is a fourth priority. At a certain level, it has been a great success and this is down to the determined efforts of all the parties. The danger is that, in our determination to ensure structures are in place, we have overlooked the underlying principles of the agreement - to enhance the professional status and accountability of individual teachers, which would ultimately lead to an improved educational experience for Scotland's children and to increased levels of attainment.

Regrettably, we are more than two years into the agreement, yet at a school level in many areas of the country teachers and headteachers have been unable to move beyond arguments about the time to be devoted to departmental and developments meetings in relation to the annual "working time agreements". Perhaps we should now look at a revision of this section of the agreement to match working time agreements to the three-year school development cycle, allowing a more effective focus on the improvement agenda.

If the post-McCrone agreement comes to be seen as placing "rigid time limits" on necessary school activities, reducing continuing professional development to a mechanistic necessity, and placing teachers and heads at odds rather than creating a collegiate culture, it will have come to nought.

Finally, raising standards is important, whether it be of attendance, behaviour, bullying, citizenship or examination performance. Too often schools are the targets of criticism, not always deserved, when they should be given support. While the rights of individuals and groups must be respected, the wilful undermining of school efforts to raise standards should be resisted.

Schools must be able to expect, for example, that non-completion of homework will not be supported by parents and carers, that school dress codes will be respected, that contracts related to issues such as pupil conduct and bullying will be supported effectively by parents and carers, that school attempts to develop good citizenship in their pupils (even on simple issues such as litter) should be respected and that attendance policies, particularly in years S3 and S4 which appear to be the most problematic, will be supported.

If parents and carers have high expectations of our schools, we are entitled to have high expectations of them. We all want Scotland to have a positive and successful future. We want a society, which is healthy, provides opportunity for all, a society that rejects spiteful sectarianism and racism and is inclusive. Education is the key and we all have a part to play.

Jim Dalziel is headteacher of Eastbank Academy in Glasgow and principal of Eastbank Learning Community.

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