Why a Great Debate was dead in the water

A lack of clarity about its aims has bedevilled the Scottish Parliament's efforts to stimulate discussion on education, says Ian Morris

IT is vacation time but the tumult and the shouting on the Great debate has not died because it never lived.

Former Prime Minister James Callaghan initiated a great debate on education in his Ruskin College speech in 1976. He was clear about his aim, which was to control educational expenditure and control standards. The first was easy - just turn off the tap. A former Chancellor, he knew all the weasel words in support of such action - a favourite being a touch on the tiller and steady as she goes.

On curriculum, there was a nagging fear that the Schools Council had gained too much control. On assessment, the Assessment of Performance Unit was under the control of the then Department of Education and Science, yet did not produce the results required, ie "prove" what politicians wished to believe. It was wing-clipping time.

Scotland mirrored these initiatives with the Scottish Examination Board in 1963, the Consultative Committee on the Curriculum in 1965 and the General Teaching Council in 1966. Scotland also had a penchant for task forces, which sounds efficient. England, with its Oxbridge administrators who had read Greats, preferred ad hoc committees. The question becomes: "What does our Scottish Cabinet want from this debate?" Is it more power, or is it an attempt to fill rather vacant minds among MSPs?

Teacher unions should be wary about giving more power to the centre or to centrally inspired groups. Someone is trying to sift the material offered for the debate and, administrator or academic, will have problems in giving appropriate weight to any contribution. One group of higher education staff complained that pupils were not trained to argue a case on its merits, and without emotion. Thus we are offered emotion-free discussion but do not know who decides what is meritorious. The more you ponder this, the sillier it gets.

We have had blinding flashes of the obvious. Some MSPs concluded that the Three Rs were basic. Our businessmen deplore the lack of reading ability, numeracy and articulation in school-leavers, but they have been saying this for 40 years. They have now left out a lack of forelock-tugging. Respect at any level is hard to come by.

The usual suspects have pontificated. The media try to make education interesting but with Beckham's toe, Henman's seizures, Montgomery's back and Liz's baby, it is in a dodgy fifth place.

Those who have reverted to the 19th century way of stratifying education into its intellectual, physical, social, moral and religious components, have changed to cognitive, physical, emotional, socio-economic and ethical. Religion has been dropped. There is no discernible improvement.

The new term may open with teachers being provided with a fresh and inspiring account of what happened in the debate. This would be wonderful. Yet it may just be cauld kale rehet.

A radical agenda would see schools as free-standing institutions, providing education under the control of the headteacher with a small committee elected from staff by secret ballot. The logistics should be left to the local authority. Unlike business, if a school fails the head should be accountable.

But these options seem off limits. Of our new parliament, it was said that "the hopes and fears of all the years are born in thee tonight". But it has become the problem. Its own debates are feeble and most members lack purpose. They are imposing on the education system form-filling and record-keeping, often consisting of ticking boxes where the sum of the parts does not produce the whole because they do not understand how schools work.

John Stuart Mill in the 19th century advocated universal education because it produced pleasure rather than pain. This is social inclusion. MSPs should be the social workers of their constituencies. They still have sufficient status to do this well. They should be a visiting force to the public and private sector offering inspiration and enthusiasm - whingeing and misery kill hope.

Laurence Sterne, the 18th century author of Tristram Shandy, had the right idea: "The ancient Goths debated everything of importance twice . . . once drunk and once sober - drunk that their councils might not want vigour; and sober that they might not want discretion." At least it was a clear policy.

Ian Morris was head of research and intelligence in the former Scottish Education Department.

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