Striving for higher educational standards

Keir Bloomer in The Scotsman

Education has never been more important: it is the key to economic success and sustaining a healthy society. Countries that offer the best education will enable their citizens to lead prosperous, useful and fulfilled lives.

Scotland has good schools. Yet it is no longer world-leading. Other countries are catching up: a good number have already overtaken. The system is not in crisis, but action need to be taken now if Scottish education is to be once again among the best in the world. In particular, better ways have to be found of bringing about change and of tackling the educational consequences of social disadvantage.

These are the main conclusions of the Commission on School Reform, an independent, non-political body established by two leading policy think-tanks, Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. The group, which included education professionals, business and third-sector representatives, as well as prominent representatives of the four main political parties, unanimously agreed 37 recommendations to put Scottish education back on top.

The commission, which reported yesterday, supports the principles of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), believing it has already brought significant benefits. However, it needs to be interpreted in ways that are more ambitious. Schools should aim to reduce to zero the number of young people whose poor basic skills will hold them back in later life. There is also a need to emphasise more advanced skills, including those linked to employability. The development of CfE has to be seen as a long-term venture, rather than a one-off event.

The history of Scottish education over the past half-century shows the ineffectiveness of its change processes. Timescales are too drawn out and programmes do not achieve what is initially claimed for them. Often, they are too far removed from the concerns of the classroom. Insufficient effort is made to persuade parents, employers and others of the need for change. These problems did not originate with CfE; they were just as evident in relation to Standard Grade, Five to Fourteen, Higher Still and many other programmes. The difficulty of achieving change means that standards have not risen as far or as fast as they should. In a highly competitive global economy, this is not good enough.

Furthermore, Scotland has not successfully tackled educational disadvantage. An important 2007 study found that Scottish schools offered a remarkably consistent standard of service. However, the outcomes of different schools were not comparable. Pupils from schools serving the most-deprived areas consistently achieve less than those in affluent areas. Every government for 50 years has sincerely tried to tackle this problem, but there has been no breakthrough.

The commission believes efforts must start earlier, with a “very early-years service” operating from birth or before, providing additional support for those most at risk of educational failure. A specialist centre should be set up to pool expertise, conduct research and spread good practice. The allocation of resources needs to be reviewed, with money increasingly following the individual child in need. This is the only point in its report where the commission calls for increased spending. Breaking the link between disadvantage and underachievement is a matter of such importance that resources must be found – even at a time of financial restraint – even if they have to be redirected away from other priorities.

Scotland has been inhibited in its drive for improvement by the high level of uniformity in the system. Although schools often try to make themselves distinctive, in matters of curriculum, organisation, assessment and so forth, there is little variety. As a result, the system has little capacity to learn from experience. Fostering diversity and innovation has to be a major priority for government.

Schools need more control over their own affairs. Headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous organisations, albeit acting in a collegiate manner that encourages every teacher to contribute creatively. Barriers to innovation – real or imagined – need to be broken down. That implies more supportive approaches to quality assurance (which should no longer be called inspection) and greater flexibility in national examinations. Above all, it means changes in the culture of Scottish education. Excessive hierarchy must become a thing of the past. Upward communication must be encouraged and constructive criticism should be positively received.

It is vital also that each level within the governance structure has a clear function. The role of central government is strategic leadership and the promotion of improvement. It does not include the micro-management of schools. Schools must continue to provide a consistently high-quality service, but they must also be enterprising, willing to innovate and take well-judged risks. Local authorities should focus increasingly on championing the interests of individual children, especially those experiencing difficulties, and on co-ordinating services and planning for their communities.

Over the years, Scotland has not been short of good ideas. CfE and the recent Donaldson Report on teachers’ professional development are evidence of that. However, good ideas have not been turned into effective, practical action. The commission has offered proposals to remedy this failing.

All over the world, governments have been developing new educational mission statements similar to CfE. Everywhere, there is a recognition that education is vital and that far-reaching change is needed. As yet, nobody has made the breakthrough to genuinely 21st century practice. Our report is designed to help Scotland be the first.