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When partners fall out

It was either inspirational - or foolhardy - of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) to choose "learning partnerships" as the theme of its annual conference last weekend (page six). There was, of course, a pleasing ambiguity about the title: who is the learner, what is being learnt and who are the partners? Indeed, the implicit message is that everyone is learning the art of partnership.

And it is an art. The problem with partnership is that it has been around for so long and token obeisance is paid to it, a simple nod in the direction of political correctness which nobody need heed. After all, talking to others is no big deal. Consulting them may be more difficult.

Involving them is infinitely more so. But actual commitment to abide by outcomes is the real test.

It was Roy Jobson, Edinburgh's director of education and new ADES president, who captured the essence of the dilemma when he asked: "What happens when the public is wrong?" Nobody has been quite so publicly blunt before. After all, the essence of democracy is that the public is always right. Isn't it?

Mr Jobson had been prompted by John McTernan, the Government policy adviser, who focused minds. Echoing the new Labour election agenda, which he is helping shape at least south of the border, Mr McTernan noted the huge gulf between what his political masters routinely describe as the producers and consumers. It became immediately clear that there is a new mantra, encapsulated in the phrase "personalising" contact with the public.

The seamless agenda is now obvious: education initiatives, which Peter Peacock has promoted for some time as an apparently disengaged matter of interest only to Scotland, have assumed UK-wide significance. For him, the link is to personal learning planning in schools; for Mr McTernan, and the Blairite agenda, the link is to invest (we use the term advisedly) the public services with a more personal touch.

But how will it work in practice? There are public servants who believe that, quite simply, the public can be wrong. The challenge facing the "personalised" view of the public service world is how to strike a balance.

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