Reform Scotland

Scottish education – what needs to be done? – Keir Bloomer

This post by Keir Bloomer, which first appeared in the Sunday Times on 6 September 2015, is a summary of a chapter from a forthcoming publication, ‘Reforming Scotland’, produced by Reform Scotland.


From any perspective – social or economic – it is vital that Scottish education is among the best in the world.  At present, only the university sector can credibly make such a claim.  Other sectors have considerable strengths but they are not world leading.

Creating a truly excellent education system requires actions in four areas.

First among these is institutional autonomy.  The evidence is clear, particularly at more advanced levels of education.  Autonomy works; systems where individual institutions have more independence enjoy greater success than systems where this is not the case.  Yet, the independence of the colleges has already been greatly eroded and that of the universities is under threat.

The position of schools is more complicated.  There has been a very gradual increase in the powers devolved to schools.  Their autonomy is greater than those in many countries but much more requires to be done.

Bringing this about in a way that is workable in the primary and pre-school sectors with their many individual units and that does not create a monopoly of significant decision-making at national level will not be straightforward.  The best hope would seem to lie in managing schools together in ‘clusters’ consisting of a secondary school and associated primaries.  These clusters would have a remit for education from early years into the start of adult life, thus emphasising the importance of continuity and progression.

Clusters could be governed in ways that give appropriate influence to parents, business and the local community.  The local authority role could be modernised and bureaucracy reduced.

Learning from experience
Scottish education has a problem of complacency. There was undoubtedly a time when Scotland was a world leader. Scotland is rightly proud of the contribution it made to the development of the modern world at the time of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The quality of its education was crucially important.

Scotland’s schools remain good.  However, international surveys show a pattern of decline relative to many other countries with Scotland performing above average but not among the best.  Yet Scotland’s government hailed the frankly disappointing 2012 PISA results as yet another triumph.  This culture of denial and self-congratulation is not one in which the system is likely to learn from its experience.

There are welcome signs of a more self-critical stance emerging.  The Scottish Attainment Challenge has been developed by seeking to learn from what has been successful elsewhere.  The government’s reaction to the most recent Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy was less defensive and more self-critical than often in the past.  Statements from the First Minister indicate a desire to create a system that learns rather than resisting any suggestion of a need to improve.

Thirdly there is the issue of promoting greater equality or ‘closing the gap’ as it is frequently called.  Recent government pronouncements indicate that this is now a top priority.  However, it is not a new concern but has been at the heart of policy making for half a century.  That such sustained effort has been made over such a long period without yielding significant success merely underlines the intractable nature of the problems.

Strangely, little research has been conducted into the link between disadvantage and educational failure.  There are, of course, some obvious points such as overcrowding in the home making it difficult to do homework or lack of money precluding participation in school trips.  However, more fundamental factors are involved.  From an early age, many young people growing up in poverty begin to experience a form of ‘cultural deprivation’ that makes it difficult for them to engage in formal learning as successfully as others.

The emergence of educational disadvantage at a very early age emphasises the importance of pre-school education.  The Scottish Government has commendably been extending educational opportunities for two year olds from disadvantaged households.  It is now time to go much further and create a service extending from before birth and bringing together several services but particularly health and education.

The government’s new Attainment Challenge is a promising initiative.  However, it will not be as successful as it might unless participating schools enjoy the increased autonomy advocated above.  It will also be important to ensure that it is well-adapted to local circumstances.  Learning from elsewhere is entirely legitimate but simple imitation will not suffice.

The college sector has always provided pathways suited to the less academic, second chances and opportunities throughout life.  The loss of resources and capacity in this sector represents a significant move away from any commitment to greater educational equity.  Undoing the damage that has been done in recent years must be seen as a high priority.  There is as yet little sign of this.

Looking to the long term
Finally, there is a need to look to the longer term.

In the university sector (and probably the college sector also) new technology and globalisation are bringing new opportunities and new threats. The capacity of these sectors to respond appropriately depends on both adequate resources and freedom of action at institutional level.

In the school sector, it is important to recognise that Curriculum for Excellence is an improvement programme.  It has little to say about the potential of new technology or developing knowledge of the learning process to create different educational models. It does not question the traditional structure of schooling.  Some aspects of the programme, such as the principle of personalisation, if boldly applied, will make the traditional school day or the use of the class as the unit of organisation difficult to sustain.

In its failure to break free of what is in origin a nineteenth century organisational model, Scotland is far from unique. Globally, education has been extraordinarily laggard in exploring new possibilities.  Here government has important new responsibilities.  Only it has the resources to commission the research and the innovation that will be needed if progress is to be made.

Throughout the world education systems are failing to keep up with the demand for highly educated and skilled people.  This failure is a major cause of growing inequality.  Neither is enough being done to develop active, well-informed and thoughtful citizens. In other words, education globally is falling far short of what is urgently required.

Improvement will not be enough.  Doing what is already being done a little better will yield only modest gains.  The needs of the world urgently require that some country should take a lead in starting the process of transformational change.  Why should Scotland not be first?

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