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Hands up for a better way

Keir Bloomer in The Scotsman

FEW now doubt the importance of education. Of course, there are outstanding examples of successful people who did not do well at school. However, for most of us individually, and for society as a whole, education is crucial.

In the 21st-century global economy, developed high-wage countries like Scotland can be competitive only if a large and ever-growing proportion of the workforce is capable of operating at a very high level of skill. Scotland’s future does not lie in mass-market manufacturing or the provision of run-of-the-mill services but in occupations that add value through creativity and intellectual effort.

However, the importance of education is not only a matter of economics. Recent years have seen changes not only in technology but also in matters of lifestyle, attitudes and beliefs. Many people feel disoriented and powerless. Education needs to build qualities such as adaptability and resilience that are vital to leading happy and fulfilled lives.

The pace of change has altered fundamentally the purpose of education in the years of childhood and adolescence. Schools can no longer realistically hope to give young people a complete tool kit of knowledge and skills that will see them through life. The aim must be to develop lifelong learners; people with the abilities and the positive attitudes to go on learning and adapting as circumstances change. This does not mean that knowledge is no longer important. If anything, it is more important than ever. But, on its own, it is not enough. Today’s young people need to understand as well as to know and they require the skills to turn their knowledge to useful effect.

These are very challenging objectives. Of course schools still need to ensure that every young person leaves literate and numerate but these basic skills are only the foundations of a much more ambitious endeavour. In short, the demands placed on education are greater than they have ever been and are only likely to increase.So how good is Scottish education? How capable is it of meeting the challenges of the contemporary world? The evidence suggests that Scotland’s schools are good – in some respects, very good – but not world-beating.

In 2007 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) looked at Scotland’s schools and concluded that they performed well and to a remarkably even quality. It didn’t matter much which school a child attended, a decent quality of education would almost certainly be available. On the other hand, it did matter very much what kind of background the child came from. Scotland’s education system seemed largely incapable of overcoming the consequences of social and economic deprivation. One of the system’s cherished aims – counteracting disadvantage – was simply not being achieved.

Comparing the performance of schools in different countries is notoriously difficult. It would be foolish to claim that the massive international surveys carried out every few years offer an infallible guide. Yet the messages emerging from these surveys – and particularly from PISA which looks at attainment in literacy, maths and science – seem clear. Scotland performs better than most but it is not at the top of the league and others are making faster progress. Perhaps the most striking example is China. In the latest PISA survey in 2009, the schools of the Shanghai region were the top performers in all the areas tested. This is a wake-up call for Scotland and the rest of the developed world.

Taking a realistic view of where we stand is a first step towards making progress. Nostalgia for a past when Scotland was possibly the best-educated country in the world is not a serious substitute for working to make it so again.

Some of the prerequisites are in place. Scotland has a highly qualified teaching profession who already achieve high standards. Forward-looking policies such as Curriculum for Excellence and the Donaldson recommendations on teacher professional development are in place. Will they be implemented with sufficient ambition? What more will be needed to secure improvement, not only over the next few years but as far into the future as we can see? These are the issues that the Commission on School Reform seeks to address.

The Commission was set up at the end of 2011 by the think tanks, Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. Its membership includes people professionally involved in education, others from business and the third sector and people engaged in public life. It is non-political but includes members associated with each of the major political parties.

Its aims are to form an objective view of Scotland’s educational performance, to consider the challenges that education will face in the future and to offer suggestions on how those challenges might be met. Its perspective is long-term: it is not focused on immediate issues like the introduction of the new ‘National’ examinations. The Commission has no wish to engage in destructive criticism or to allocate blame. Its hope is that its suggestions will be helpful to schools, local authorities and governments of any political persuasion.

The paper that is published today is an interim report. It offers an assessment of where Scotland currently stands and indicates the lines of enquiry that the Commission will be pursuing over the coming months. It reflects members’ growing belief that schools should be more autonomous and that the system would benefit from greater diversity but it contains no recommendations. Those will come in a final report to be issued around the end of the year.

The interim report sets out a formidable agenda for the Commission to follow. It will look at change processes, the place of diversity in a system noted for its uniformity, the need for greater empowerment of individual schools, the implications for governance, the scope for greatly increased use of new technology and much more. It continues to welcome comment and contributions on any of these subjects from anyone with an interest in Scottish education.

Within this list, the first item is of crucial significance but tends to be neglected. In a complex system like education, how is real change best achieved? The last 50 years have seen a succession of policy initiatives from comprehensive reorganisation in the 1960s through to Curriculum for Excellence today, all designed to produce transformational change. In the last case, it is far to early to assess what has been achieved. However, the record of the past is of programmes that promised much and delivered far less, often at a high cost, both financially and in teacher morale. Yet the process of bringing about change has been little explored. How is the right culture put in place? How is a shared sense of purpose created? Is change more effective if led from the top or fostered at classroom level? These are questions that the Commission will explore.

Every country in the developed world is engaged in educational reform. They all have their mission statements, most of them having much in common with . Yet they all struggle to break free from the organisational constraints of systems designed in the nineteenth century. Nobody has yet developed the change processes that lead to genuinely transformed practice. No country yet offers an education service fit for the 21st century. Could Scotland be the first?