Thursday, 11 March 2010

Schools Management debate

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Liz Smith argued that there is a need for change and that education is currently unacceptable to parents and has to become acceptable. However, I would suggest that the recognition in the SNP amendment that we have good-quality schools now is at the heart of how we assess how we make those schools better. Talking about the need for change sounds more like an argument for ideological change than an argument about the nuts and bolts.

We have heard some interesting arguments and—mainly from the Conservatives—a lot of rhetoric. Bill Aitken laid out a grim litany on Glasgow. I do not recognise in what he said the community that I come from and the one in which I used to teach, in Easter Ross. In those communities, there is a variety of catchment areas containing a variety of schools, some of which are favoured by parents and some of which are not. What I have noticed is that in the schools to which parents aspire, success is less to do with what happens in the school and more to do with the fact that parents can afford to get tutors after school to get their children to a standard that allows certain schools, such as Fortrose academy, to get the records that they do. That is an issue to do with being better off, not the structure and governance of a school.

Elizabeth Smith: I accept the member's point, but is that not critical for allowing all standards to be driven up so that that divide is not as great as it is now?

Rob Gibson: We need to assess where we are in education. We are talking about parents who have grown up in the television age and children who, in the past 10 years, have been growing up in the internet age. Does that affect the way in which they view literacy and numeracy? I do not know whether, educationally, those things have made a big difference, but what I do know is that communities must be given an opportunity to provide the options in education that will meet the real needs of our society.

We live in a society in which many people will not do the most basic jobs, and we rely on immigrants to do such jobs. Perhaps we need to ask parents about their responsibilities: are they moving out of their comfort zone, or is it a case of getting their children to university and into the safe professions? One of the reasons why Ireland has not been as successful a society as it should have been is that the middle classes have aimed for comfort, rather than for the adventure of taking the economy forward. The governance of our schools should expose children to such ideas. It bothers me that when the Conservatives talk about diversity in Scotland, what they are actually talking about is uniformity, and the ideology driven by the Conservatives in London. Derek Brownlee recently gave examples of schools set up under Labour and the Tories, based on ideology. We do not need to talk about setting up schools. Where are we going to put a free school in Easter Ross, among the community schools that are already there? That is a load of piffle. We need schools that meet the needs of each area. Who is going to go to somewhere other than Anderson high school in Shetland? That kind of talk is not related to reality.

Peter Peacock argued that parents do not want to be more involved in the running of schools. In my experience, when people come to communities and join school boards and so on, they bring their experience from England of governors and boards, and an attitude that is completely out of kilter with what we have here. In Scotland, parents and teachers work together. In fact, the reason why Thatcher failed to break Scottish teachers in the 1980s is because the parents were right behind them. In those days, communities stood together and rejected the Tory ideology, and they will reject it today.

Des McNulty: The member should come and join us. He is on the wrong side.

Rob Gibson: Well, Peter Peacock made arguments that Des McNulty should listen to. He was clearly talking about ideology rather than practicalities.

The issue of parental rights and responsibilities is relevant here. I remember when we talked about consortia, and allowing pupils to move around. Nowadays, ideas can move around, and it is possible to educate pupils using technology. For example, Inverness College's higher psychology course is being used by 18 secondary schools in Highland Council. No matter which community someone lives in, they can do higher psychology. Out of 26 secondary schools, that is not bad going.

We are talking about rolling out the curriculum for excellence, which will allow for diversity. However, it must also allow communities of excellence, based on the kinds of economies that underpin the society in which we live, rather than on a single, one-size-fits-all ideology.

What we need is a responsive approach by local authorities that gives local people opportunities to make more decisions. When we think about it, it would be better to have smaller local authorities so that people could be elected at the level of secondary school catchment areas. People could then take a direct democratic interest in the issues. That is why the democratic element in East Lothian Council's proposal is worth considering. It goes in the right direction, although not to the extent that I wish to see. We need governance that helps real communities in real circumstances and not this fake debate in an election campaign about power in London.

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