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A lesson for us all – Scotland on Sunday

Richard Bath
Scotland on Sunday, 21 April 2008

One small school in Greenock could be a template for state education in Scotland. Richard Bath explains why he sent his son there.

ALISON Speirs can still remember the moment when she decided to change not just her own life but those of hundreds of children and their parents. It was in 1999 and she was a learning support specialist in the west of Scotland when she heard that one of the members of her church in Greenock had gifted £20,000 and was looking for a good cause. An idea that she had been playing with for many years finally took shape. She set up a school.

"I was being confronted every day with all of the problems that you find in schools in the state sector," she says. "It\’s far too boring for the kids, who spend far too much of their time sitting at their desks. That\’s because there are just too many pupils and too few teachers, which means that children are left to their own devices far too often. As a teacher you spend time dealing with difficult or needy pupils, so you often find that many kids just drift through the day. As a result you find that the school ethos ends up being set by the pupils and not by the teachers. It\’s rule by your peers, with all that entails, including lots of bullying. It\’s not the way schools should be."

A committed Christian, Speirs had recently visited a tiny faith primary school called the Regius School in Edinburgh and had come away inspired. Knowing there was a small pot of money available and that her church owned an unprepossessing but suitable building that was lying unused in one of the less salubrious suburbs of Greenock, she set to work.

"As soon as we said that we were going to set up a school, we were inundated," she says. "The plan was to have three or four full-time teachers for 30 children, with part-time specialists in areas such as French or sciences, and we were full within days. I was staggered by the response. And while some of those original people were members of our church, a great many were not. The number of parents looking for something different from the schools their children were attending really surprised us."

It doesn\’t surprise me, though. Two years ago I was one of those parents. Cedars, as Speirs\’ school was christened, had been up and running for over six years before we sent my oldest son Ollie there, but our story was one that I have heard repeated countless times by other parents at the school. Ollie wasn\’t getting along well socially or educationally at the school in our Ayrshire village and the situation had reached crisis point. A previously happy, sunny kid had become worryingly withdrawn; his school days weren\’t something to be enjoyed, but to be endured. He wasn\’t learning, he wasn\’t happy. It couldn\’t go on like this.

We had the option of Cedars for our son because one woman, aided by concerned parents, had the vision to set up her own small school. Last week a think-tank called Reform Scotland published a report calling for a revolution in Scottish schooling that would allow many thousands of parents to make a choice like ours.

The report called for Scotland to follow in the footsteps of Sweden and Holland, where parents are given vouchers to the value of the £5,000 to £6,000 it costs to educate each child, which they can then spend them at whatever school they see fit. The result has been small schools popping up in shopping centres, disused offices and farm steadings, to challenge the existing state schools, which have in turn been energised by the competition. Many of the new schools are run by parents, charities or as faith schools. Some even function as for-profit businesses.

Seeing your child have trouble at school is every parent\’s nightmare. For whatever reason – and it can be something as simple as not liking football in a class where literally every other boy is obsessed with the game – your child doesn\’t fit in, can\’t function effectively at the only school to which you are entitled to send him or her. While our other two children were happy and prospering at the same school, he was not, and we felt like we were watching him slip through the cracks in the system. At Cedars we found we were not alone. "Lots of children come here very distressed by their experiences at other schools," says Speirs.

The change in Ollie since he moved schools has been nothing short of miraculous. From being part of a class of 30 or so children, he is now in a school where classes are mixed ability and restricted to a maximum of 10 pupils, where all the teachers are young, highly motivated and, in the words of a highly impressed Government inspector, "feel privileged to work in the school". Now aged 11, Ollie actively looks forward to school, has lots of friends, is highly engaged with his lessons. He is finally a round peg in a round hole.

We were lucky that we had any choice, let alone one as ideal as Cedars, and even luckier that we could scrape together the annual fee of £3,500. Yet if Reform Scotland had their way, the choice that we were fortunate enough to be able to make would be open to every parent in Scotland. In England, the Tory frontbencher Michael Gove has been trumpeting the voucher system as an idea whose time has come.

The average secondary in Britain has over 1,000 pupils, but in Holland and Sweden when parents are able to choose what sort of school their children go to, they instinctively opt for the philosophy that small is beautiful. As with Cedars, which has 120 pupils, the average size of new schools in Holland is 150 pupils.

The evidence, most of it from America, strongly suggests that those instincts are well founded, that small schools raise achievement and tackle poor behaviour, particularly in deprived urban areas. When Ofsted in England recently compared small schools with large ones, it concluded that they laid down community links and possessed a "family atmosphere" that was absent from larger schools.

Not that the setting up of these schools would be straightforward. Speirs herself wonders how many other organisations or individuals could follow Cedars\’ example. While there is no overt sign that Cedars is a faith school and "the priority is first and foremost to be an exceptional educational establishment", the teachers\’ faith does underpin their vocation, while the church\’s financial backing was essential when the school spent over £1m buying new premises in central Greenock three years ago.

Not all experiments are as successful as Cedars. Two years ago a Muslim school set up by parents in Dundee closed down following a critical report from HM Inspectorate of Schools. The Imam Muhammad Zakariya school had 20 girl pupils. The inspectors\’ report had criticised the young and unqualified staff and said pupils received only a limited number of subjects.

Douglas Osler, a former HM chief inspector of schools, sees potential problems with a voucher scheme. "I\’ve always thought there were advantages in looking at a variety of ways of how parents choose schools," he said, "but this is simplistic. Not all parents are sufficiently interested to make a choice and many will not bother. So bad schools won\’t close. Also the problem with extensive management of parents is that generally they are only interested for the amount of time that their children are there."

Yet it remains the case that, particularly in poor inner-city areas where parents cannot afford to move into a good catchment area or send their child to an independent school, there is no alternative to failing schools. Reform Scotland\’s proposals may offer them options; indeed, the vouchers given to children from impoverished backgrounds would be significantly larger to ensure that popular schools were incentivised to take them. This is particularly important because in Sweden the scheme increased social segregation.

There seems little appetite in the Scottish Government for such an innovative approach, with ministers preferring to leave schooling solely to local authorities. A spokesman said yesterday: "School education in Scotland is provided by councils and under our recently agreed concordat with local government we have a shared set of commitments to drive down class sizes in the early years and ensure young people are better educated, more skilled and more successful. We have provided record funding for authorities, with a 13.1% increase over three years, and ended restrictive ring-fencing so councils have more freedom to allocate funding to meet local needs – including education."

Reform Scotland director Geoff Mawdsley acknowledges that adopting Sweden and Holland\’s voucher system is a radical solution to the country\’s educational ills, but believes that simply throwing more resources at the problem is doomed to fail. "The education budget in Scotland has increased by 87% over the last decade and although this has led to improvements in some areas, Reform Scotland\’s research shows that we have fallen behind a number of European countries in key areas such as maths, reading and science," he says.

"Bearing this in mind, we looked at the education systems in the Netherlands and Sweden to see what lessons we might learn. These are countries that share our commitment to universal access and extending educational opportunity for all. The difference is that they believe these objectives can best be achieved within a system which gives parents greater control over their children\’s education and a greater range of schools from which to choose because this drives up standards across the board."

Across in Greenock, those are fine words which are being given practical application by Alison Speirs and her team, and being applauded by grateful parents like me.   Read the Scotland on Sunday article here.