“Revolution needed to get Scotland’s schools back to being the best again” – Courier


This article by Jenny Hjul appeared in the Courier

THERE HAVE been many reviews and reports, commissions and surveys on and into Scottish education over the past decades. None of them have brought significant change to our schools and most of them have lost sight of what should have been their number one priority: children.

So on hearing there was to be yet another attempt to unearth what is wrong with this country’s school system I was sceptical. Having been invited to give written evidence to the independent Commission on School Reform I first looked down the list of commission members.

There was a former Labour education minister who had not exactly earned a reputation as a reformer when he had the chance and who had, in fact, abolished the league tables by which parents were able to measure a school’s progress.

But there were also high achieving head teachers and college principals, among them strong characters who, I hoped, would prevail with their own proven recipes for success. Perhaps this time we would get an education commission prepared to admit to Scotland’s failings and brave enough to recommend a radical overhaul.

On Monday their report was published and although it does say the Curriculum for Excellence is a good idea (few teachers agree), its findings should, at least, cause a jolt in the education establishment.

If Scotland does not undertake some fundamental changes, said commission chair Keir Bloomer, our schooling will continue to decline relative to most other countries.

One of those changes should address the hierarchical education structure that discourages schools from seizing the initiative and controlling their resources, from innovating and taking well-considered risks.

Decisions that can be taken at school level should not be taken elsewhere, said the report, and schools would be better if they were more diverse.

The idea that our comprehensive system is too uniform and would benefit from variety is a bold one, unlikely to find favour within the local authorities that currently pull the strings, or at St Andrews House where Mike Russell, education and lifelong learning minister, presides.

Head teachers being the “chief executives of largely autonomous bodies” is a groundbreaking concept indeed for Scotland and more in line with the sweeping reforms now transforming schools in England.

Institutions free from the shackles of town hall diktats and from interfering bureaucrats with political agendas would certainly have more scope to focus on education.

But the commission does not go as far as recommending that we set up city academies here, as in England, despite compelling evidence of their effectiveness.

In one submission, a teacher who in the 1990s was a school governor in Hackney, one of the UK’s poorest boroughs, describes how it became home to some of Britain’s top secondary schools.

“The pressure to improve performance was immense down south, particularly in inner-city schools,” said the teacher, now working in Scotland and alarmed at the “cosy consensus” here that everything is sound.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the arrival of city academies raised expectations which, in turn, has had a positive effect on other schools.”

Bloomer’s commission talks of the urgent need for change and insists that this change should be ambitious, so why not go all the way? Why not advocate that schools be allowed to opt out of council control?

With this reform most of the other noble objectives – such as zero tolerance for illiteracy and innumeracy, closing the appalling gaps in attainment between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils and attracting outstanding leadership candidates to the profession – would be achievable.

But Bloomer and his team do not want their hard work to be for nothing. Even before their 129-page report was launched, Cosla, the local authorities’ umbrella group, dismissed it as ill thought out.

Education bosses will not relinquish their vast departments without a fight. And nor will the mandarins who work for Russell or one of his quangos.

By suggesting improvements within the existing boundaries, the commission will ruffle fewer feathers and is more likely to make some small headway. It is telling that Bloomer sees the report as: “a contribution to a long-term process of evolutionary change.”

But to be the best again, schools in Scotland need a revolution. And for that they will have to wait.