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Sure footed, carefully shod?

April 14, 2011

Casting my eye over the education section of the SNP manifesto issued today, and focusing on ‘schools’ as my area of knowledge, there is reason to be pleased with what it says and how it says it, if not cause to be whooping and hollering. However, given the current financial uncertainty, a revolutionary and innovative package might well have been tilting at windmills.

In fact, it’s pleasing to see words of realism in the section: in more than one area, the SNP talk of maintaining progress or consolidating gains, rather than striking out for additional targets – first term lessons learned, perhaps.

In many ways, Scottish Education has made progress during the SNP’s term and they are right to trumpet the near halving of pupil numbers in substandard schooling and the progress made towards smaller classes.

All the expected buzzwords are present: literacy, quality assurance, improvement in attainment and protecting rural schools, and, as a teacher, the continued commitment to the excellent principles of A Curriculum for Excellence is to be welcomed. When properly supported and done right, this new curriculum will have a major positive impact on schools and pupils. The devil, as ever, is in the detail, with resources needed for training and assessment preparation and standardisation, so that teachers can approach their welcome, but challenging, increased autonomy in the classroom with confidence. In the prevailing climate, the balancing of these particular books will prove to be crucial.

This brings us to governance of schools and the responsibility of individual institutions to promote the teaching and learning which best suits their pupils’ needs. Elsewhere in the document, Mike Russell indicates that he has listened to teachers at all levels across the country, and I know this to be true from personal knowledge; he speaks to many staff regularly, and what he has learned seems to be accurately reflected in a set of manifesto points that are relevant to teachers and their concerns. Certainly, going home to a primary headteacher each night must give him a fairly informed insight into what used to be called the chalk face! The mention of school clusters and the review of the balance between government, council and school control will be welcomed by all, I believe.

Support for teachers – in career structure and Continuing Professional Development – is another tricky area, given the financial cutbacks – yet both are crucial. The SNP need McCormac to get it right in all the areas that McCrone failed the profession and to ensure that teachers, for the most part willing to take on initiatives, are adequately supported and resourced in doing so. This will not be an easy task if there is an ongoing barney between councils and government of differing political hues. The same is true of the promotion of GLOW as the national education intranet. When working properly, this is truly world leading, but reliability, ease of access, and funded and resourced training for all is needed, if teachers are to approach this initiative with confidence and make full use of its enormous potential.

As one with an interest in Child Protection, Support for Learning, and Additional Needs, I am glad to see that these areas are highlighted, and the extension of EMA in the area of young carers could prove particularly effective in breaking down ‘barriers to schooling’.

The proposals in reference to Scottish Studies and Modern Languages are as exciting as they are long overdue, and again, I feel, will strike a chord with the majority of practitioners in our schools – good examples of forward thinking in a European and World context – giving our young people an educational experience that will lend them confidence in the international marketplace. These ideas could prove to be the most telling in the long run, if the means is found to progress them and embed them in our education system.

The section covers many areas, and doesn’t overreach itself. However, I did miss major input into the idea of connected up services for young people and community: where Health, Social Services, Education and the voluntary sector work closely together, and do it successfully, the young people win out on every front – there should be more encouragement and facilitation of this.

The proposal of a junior Climate Challenge Fund and the encouragement for young people to use the public library system is a welcome acknowledgement of the willingness of schools and pupils to work within their local communities. However, I would have liked a more obvious tie up between the initiatives mentioned in the Sport and Creative Scotland sections with the comments made on schools and education. The role of our schools – in their partnership with pupils, parents and community – in promoting the sport and arts agenda across Scotland is crucial, and, unfortunately, needs to be re-emphasised on every occasion. The lay out of the manifesto is user friendly and I can see the attraction of separate sections, but positive and obvious links between these three areas – as I also mentioned in reference to health and other agencies – would reflect a recognition of the need for all state agencies to work together for the general good.

So, in general, this is a collection of statements and aspirations on education that will make sense to those involved in the sector – including hopefully parents, – meets recognisable needs and concerns of teachers, and, most importantly, recognises the need for our young people to be at the centre of our future planning.

As the SNP message goes – there is more to be done, but this document reveals an understanding of the route to be followed and the destinations to be reached.

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