For many years, ministers in charge of education in England have been the system’s most unyielding flagellants while Scottish ministers have been the main cheerleaders of their system. In the 2012 international comparisons of educational standards the two countries performed almost identically but the political reactions were very different. What was seen as dismal failure in one country was portrayed as another triumph in the other. Neither of these is a helpful attitude – but my concern is with Scotland. Self-congratulation is seldom the prelude to improvement.
It has, therefore, been very refreshing to note a definite change in the tone of Scottish Government statements on education over the past few months. Performance is not good enough, says the First Minister. The Cabinet Secretary describes our position in the international comparisons as ‘mid-table’ with the clear implication that it needs to improve. There has been an effort to learn from good ideas elsewhere; whether in New York or London.
All of this is to be sincerely welcomed. It could represent a vital first step in turning Scottish education into a system that has the capacity to improve by learning from its own experience and that of others.
Perhaps the next step needs to be some serious reflection on why educational reform generally fails or, at any rate, achieves far less than is claimed at the outset. This is a subject that has received very little attention. There is plenty of debate about the content of policy but almost none about how it is implemented. Yet, Scotland tends not to be short of worthwhile ideas. What it lacks is effective means of putting them into practice.
Virtually the only report to look seriously at this issue is By Diverse Means, the report of the Commission on School Reform that was set up by Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. It looked at processes of change and concluded that they were too centralised and that not enough was being done to release the creative energies of schools and teachers. It described confusion about the roles of the separate tiers of governance. It spoke about poor communication, excessive timescales and disregard of teacher workload.
It also set out a strategy for achieving more effective change. Now that the era of denial and bluster seems to be over, would anyone in Government like to talk about it?
Keir Bloomer is an Advisory Board member for Reform Scotland, a Former President of the Association of Directors of Education and member of the group that wrote Curriculum for Excellence