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4 October 1999

The end of cosy consensus

New Statesman Scotland - The new minister had a surprise for a recent gathering of Scotland

By John Connell

Scottish education is a small community in which everyone who matters (not counting the teachers, of course, the ones who really matter) knows everyone else who matters. Seminars and conferences across the country are, in effect, meeting places for a relatively small band of movers and shakers in the system: HMI, directorate, head teachers, academics, local and national politicians. The picture over the coffee and biscuits in the foyer before a conference is more like the gathering of a large extended family than a scene of professional networking. In this cosy world of consensus and mutual hand-holding even the few black sheep of the family, those who have chosen to step outside the consensus, are accepted into the fold with only a little mocking humour to mark their transgressions. The family knows that it is strong enough to take a little criticism, occasionally.

Such was very nearly the picture at the inaugural conference of the brand new Faculty of Education at Glasgow University, formed by the merger of St Andrew’s College of Education and its giant neighbour. One or two shadows, however, chilled the edges of the gathering: the recent unequivocal rejection of the latest pay and conditions package by Scottish teachers; the possibility of industrial action over the coming winter; ministerial threats to dismantle collective bargaining through the medium of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee; the proposal that the forthcoming education bill should permit Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools to inspect the effectiveness of local education authorities; proposed new powers for the Scottish executive to set national priorities in education, priorities that local authorities will be obliged to build into their development plans. These have not in the past been the stuff of consensus in this particular family. In contrast to the scene in England, education in Scotland has managed to remain relatively cohesive: the inspectorate has not been Ofsted-ised; local education authorities have not been subject to inspection in the way that their southern counterparts have; joint collective bargaining has not thus far been replaced by a ministerially appointed pay review body; and only two schools have opted out of local authority control.

Sam Galbraith, minister for children and education in the Scottish Parliament, struck a deliberately bland and unprovocative note in his address to the conference. His willingness to engage in some dialogue with the audience after his speech produced a couple of undemanding questions. Cosiness and consensus seemed safe, for the moment at least.

So when the secondary head teacher from South Lanarkshire stood up to make her well-modulated point, she evidently expected words of reassurance from Galbraith. Her eloquent affirmation of the quality of teaching in Scottish schools and her calm defence of the most accountable body of professionals in the country raised a murmur of agreement and a riffle of nodding heads across the conference hall. The first realisation of what was to come must have hit her when her final few words were met by the slow, determined shaking of the ministerial head.

The minister for children and education was having none of it. He sat forward, looked straight at the head teacher and said: “I know the mortality figures for every single surgeon in Scotland. I don’t know the attainment figures relating to a single classroom teacher. How do you justify that?”

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Over the next couple of minutes Galbraith, in direct and simple terms, explained the means by which his government was determined to give every child in Scotland “the best possible start in life”. Clear targets set for every sector of the education service; a statutory obligation on local education authorities to deliver quality education in their schools; regular inspections by HMI of the effectiveness of education authorities; the resolve to ensure that every young person leaving a Scottish school is able to move into a job, into training, or into further or higher education. The government is well aware, Galbraith told the audience, that social class is still the single greatest predictor of educational success for an individual – his government is therefore determined to give every single school graduate in Scotland the opportunity to find a route into gainful employment and out of the poverty trap. That was also why his government’s educational policies were intended to dovetail with policies on family credit and social inclusion.

The implications of his words were clear: he expected the educational establishment and the teaching profession in Scotland to lose a little of its preciousness, to open itself up to the same levels of accountability that Galbraith was familiar with in the health sector and for teachers to exchange some of their conditions of service for a higher-than-inflation pay rise.

A few faint cries of “teacher bashing” from some in the audience did not deflect Galbraith from his message: raising attainment, promoting social inclusion and encouraging lifelong learning were his government’s watchwords. Teachers could no longer hide behind locally binding national agreements that, in the government’s eyes, served to divert energies away from giving children that “best start in life”. Nor could the local directorates expect to escape an obligation to open themselves up to external scrutiny.

This little scene lasted no more than five minutes, from the close of Galbraith’s innocuous address until he bounded off to another appointment. But those five minutes encapsulated the fissures opening up in Scottish education at the present time. The teaching profession feels beleaguered enough to be able to turn down an apparently generous offer of something like a 14 per cent pay hike over the next three years. Some (not all) of the education directorates in the local authorities are suspicious of the bid to open them up to external scrutiny by HMI. And the government, in alliance with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which represents the views of the majority of Scottish councils, seeks a greater measure of flexibility in the deployment of staff in schools, in the ways that they can pay staff and in the models of service delivery available to local authorities.

The next few months will be an uncomfortable time for the cosy consensus that has existed in Scottish education. The tests of Galbraith’s resolve will come soon enough. Will he outface the teachers should they decide to take industrial action? Will he push through the proposals for inspection of local education authorities? Will he give local authorities the power to reform school management structures? And, finally, will he be able to resist the blandishments of the Scottish education “family” long enough to push through the reforms he wants?

Anyone listening to Sam Galbraith at this conference, and certainly anyone who saw the look of quiet resolve on his face, should not doubt his determination.

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