by Graham Grant
For generations, Scotland’s schools were regarded by many as amongst the best in the world. But now an independent inquiry has been launched to investigate the roots of the country’s decline.
It will look at the merits of a radical proposal to remove Scottish schools from local authority control to drive up standards and stop their slide down international league tables.
The Commission on School Reform, established by think-tank Reform Scotland, will examine whether any aspect of Scottish state education still deserves a reputation for excellence.
Its members, including senior figures from education, politics and business, will identify the ‘root cause’ of any current problems and recommend alternative ways in which schools could be governed and managed.
A decade ago, Scottish pupils ranked near the top in ability in mathematics and reading when compared with children from other developed nations.
However, the most recent major international study – published last ear – placed Scottish youngsters mid table and found more countries had either caught up with, or overtaken, Scotland.
The inquiry is chaired by Keir Bloomer, former president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, which represents council education chiefs. Last year, Mr Bloomer called for ministers to set up a commission into how schools were run. Education Secretary Mike Russell failed to act on this call and insisted standards would improve if the people of Scotland voted for separation in the SNP’s referendum.
The think-tank’s commission will begin its investigation this week and will publish its findings and recommendations late next year.
Mr Bloomer said: “It will start by examining whether Scotland’s international reputation for excellence is still justified and whether our schools are still enabling young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to fulfil their potential. It will, therefore, consider key questions such as whether any problems are the result of a lack of funding or are connected with more fundamental structural issues such as the way in which our schools are governed and managed.
Among the commission’s 13 other members are Dr Judith McClure, the former head of St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, Professor Dame Joan Stringer, principal of Napier University, and Angus Tulloch, an investment fund manager.
Mr Bloomer said the people of Scotland would be ‘kidding themselves’ if they thought no change was required, as international studies show nations such as China and India rapidly catching up.
The most recent UK league tables, published earlier this month, suggested Scotland was falling further behind England.
The 100th-best English state school had a pass rate more than 20 per cent higher than the best council-controlled Scottish school.
Mr Russell has previously reacted to calls for change by launching the Curriculum for Excellence, which Mr Bloomer helped write. The education expert said the curriculum would help improve the ‘classroom experience’ but contained little in the way of structural change.
The inquiry comes after business leasers attacked Scottish exam bosses last week for fuelling the country’s classroom literacy crisis.
Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, warned that many youngsters are thrown on the ‘reject pile’ because of their poor skills in English. Pupils in Scotland are not penalised for grammatical errors or misspellings under a controversial system called ‘positive marking’.
This means students are given credit for what they get right but not penalised for blunders – giving pupils free rein to get away with turning in exam papers and coursework littered with mistakes.
Mr McMillan criticised the Scottish Qualifications Authority for worsening the decline in standards and called for marks to be deducted for poor spelling, grammar and presentation in exams and internal assessments.
He added: ‘Will this mean, in some cases, the difference between a pass or a fail, or a higher or lower grade in the examination? Yes, it will – but over time this will help to raise standards and improve the employment prospects of our young people.’
The attack – which comes as schools face their first teachers’ strike in a generation tomorrow – follws a report by the Scottish Daily Mail last week that more than 30,000 pupils failed Standard Grade or Higher exams this year.