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We're in the mire and no one cares;Opinion

AS THE historic hustings loom, significant swatches of once proud Scottish education lie disgraced and in limboland, labelled inadequate by the national Inspectorate. Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1995 to 1998 warned that there is a need for immediate improvement in writing attainment for half of all primary school pupils, that English and maths standards in S1-S2 are weak overall in 40 per cent of secondaries and that leadership weaknesses affect one in five primary heads.

This last is interesting for teachers, because, says the senior chief inspector, the quality of the head is the sine qua non for an effective school. The underlying message is, "underperforming schools and poor headteachers go together".

What recourse then has the excellent and conscientious teacher in a poorly led school, bar seeking promotion and moving away? Such a teacher (and there must be many) in the 90 per cent of primaries and 85 per cent of secondaries labelled by the Inspectorate as "could do better" no doubt suffers from additional stress. She or he probably also welcomes much of the reform proposed by the present feisty Minister for Education, a politician who is, however, taking her talents elsewhere after May.

Many authorities are also currently looking to better matters: from submitting improvement bids - and thereby generating much new bureaucracy - to the Government's excellence fund. One such is Edinburgh. But a long list of worthy educational objectives specifically excludes mention of the need to tackle the still disastrously low levels of 5-14 testing in the city's secondary schools.

Edinburgh and other authorities have still to demonstrate that they have the slightest idea how to prevent the 5-14 programme sinking into the mire of the mixed-ability ethos still damagingly prevalent in too many of Scotland's comprehensive schools.

Question: who said recently that half of Scotland's workforce have a reading age of about 11? Answer: not a political spokesperson, but a leading figure in the Government's new deal programme. Teachers in the profession today have been hoodwinked by the educational philosophies of the sixties - still incidentally alive and well in our training colleges. That, allied to the fact that mediocrity has apparently become a synonym for excellence in Scottish education, calls for drastic action from Holyrood.

The new parliament must recognise that the comprehensive ideal has failed Scotland, repeatedly failed. Scotland now trails many other countries, including increasingly England, in national and international surveys.

A clean slate is needed. Parents want choice. England largely offers this - single-sex and mixed, comprehensive, grant-maintained, grammar, city technology, specialist - a mix far more likely to produce competition for excellence than Scotland's comprehensive monolith.

The role of local government should end. Schools should be locally managed and centrally funded. Flexible academic selection should be introduced, at several points on a child's educational journey.

The parliament should give not just thought but resource to creating equal status for both practical and academic education. We have to tell young people that it really is OK to major in car mechanics (plus core skills). Lifelong learning means that the HND in engineering can come later.

What about school vouchers for Scotland's parents? An idea with immense potential that the Tories were not quite brave enough to go for. Education policy in Tony Blair's Middle England is now far to the right of the former Tory slate, and vouchers no longer seem impossible there if other measures fail to satisfy David Blunkett.

Here in Scotland it remains to be seen whether any political party will even diagnose our problem of slow decline, much less offer a thoughtful remedy other than the usual sticking plasters.

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