Paper for think tank says our schools are not world leading, and outlines five areas for change

Reform Scotland, the independent, non-party think tank, has published a paper on its Melting Pot blog by Keir Bloomer, former President of the Association of Directors of Education.

Mr Bloomer’s paper, Reforming Scotland: What Future for Scottish Education?, discusses in detail the need for an education system – from early-years to universities – which can adapt to a changing world.

In a section outlining what Mr Bloomer believes needs to be done, he writes:

“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.”

Mr Bloomer goes on to outline five observations to help improve the system. On the first – autonomy – he writes:

“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 been severely curtailed and that of the universities has been diminished. So far as these sectors are concerned, the remedy is obvious. Government must abandon the instinct to centralise and control, recognising that it is counter-productive.

“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. Real progress cannot be made, however, without looking more widely at the governance arrangements for Scottish schooling.”

Suggesting, secondly, that we must learn from experience, he writes:

“Scottish education has a problem of complacency. There was undoubtedly a time when Scotland was a world leader. The contribution that Scotland made to the development of the modern world at the time of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution was out of all proportion to its size, and derived very largely from the quality of its education. There is every reason to be proud of this historic achievement, but it should not preclude taking a constructively critical view of the system as it currently exists.

“The tendency to fend off criticism is at its most noticeable in relation to schools.”

Discussing the concept of equity, Mr Bloomer writes:

“Thirdly there is the issue of promoting greater equality or ‘closing the gap’ as it is frequently called. At the outset, it is important to recognise that, in the school sector at least, this has been at the heart of policy making for half a century. From the introduction of comprehensive secondary education to the Scottish Attainment Challenge by way of mixed ability teaching, raising the school leaving age, Munn and Dunning, Five to Fourteen and innumerable other initiatives, politicians, officials and teachers have joined forces to raise levels of achievement among the disadvantaged. Sincere and sustained efforts have been made – but with little evidence of success.

“The emergence of educational disadvantage at a very early age emphasises the importance of … high quality early education. For this reason, the Scottish Government has 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, particularly health and education. This would not be a matter of extending downwards the age at which nursery education might begin but of looking at the developmental needs of the child (and the broader needs of the family) in order to determine what kinds of intervention might be most successful at each stage.”

On effective mechanisms for change:

“Scotland has not been short of good ideas but it has lacked skill in putting them into effect. The major educational reform programmes of the last fifty years have achieved much less than they might because of failures of implementation. At the heart of this problem is a lack of understanding about how to bring about change in complex systems.”

Finally, on looking to the long-term, Mr Bloomer writes:

“Finally, there is a need to look to the longer term. New technology has transformed many areas of human activity. Yet it has had only a marginal impact on the educational process. Knowledge of how the brain works and how people learn is constantly expanding. As yet, this new knowledge is some distance removed from having a practical impact in the classroom. However, it cannot be long before educational approaches are radically altered by these two forces for change. Governments across the world have, however, shown very limited interest in this kind of transformational change.”



1. Reform Scotland is an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility. Further information is available at
2. The Melting Pot is our guest blog page, where Scotland’s thinkers, talkers and writers can indulge in some blue sky thinking. The posts do not represent Reform Scotland’s policies.
3. The paper Reforming Scotland: What Future for Scottish Education? – can be read here.
4. Media: Message Matters (Andy Maciver, 07855 261 244)