Scotland must learn from this lost opportunity – Keir Bloomer

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The closure of Newlands Junior College (NJC) calls into question whether the Scottish education system is capable of serious innovation.

NJC was set up by Jim McColl, the well-known entrepreneur, to meet the needs of young people who had some spark but were turned off by mainstream schooling.  At the time when they were admitted, almost all seemed destined to fail.  However, every one who has completed the two-year course is employed, in an apprenticeship or on a college course.

The benefits are huge, both for the young people themselves and for society.  Educational failure often leads to long-term unemployment, poverty and loss of self-esteem – disasters for the individual.  But it can also lead to poor health, drug addiction, crime and a lifetime of claiming benefits, not to mention the waste of talent.  The cost to society is enormous.

Many factors have contributed to NJC’s success.  Its unique curriculum with a reduced emphasis on academic study, extensive opportunities for vocational learning (through City of Glasgow College) and a commitment to personal development has proved highly motivating.  The close partnership with business helps students to become work-ready.  Staying in contact with former students allowed NJC to provide continuing support, keeping them in work or on courses when the going became tough.

One factor, however, was paramount.  NJC could take only 60 students at a time.  Its small size meant that close, supportive and trusting relationships could develop between learners and staff.  Even the most disengaged young people came to realise that the teachers really were on their side.  As a result, attitudes both to learning and to life generally became much more positive.  From being almost certain failures, students became the kind of young people who are likely to succeed. 

This is a genuinely life-changing difference.  Furthermore, it depends on the close, warmly supportive ethos that only a small institution can provide.  Secondary schools can – and do – achieve great outcomes for huge numbers of young people.  Changes in curriculum and teaching methods can increase their success.  But the most disengaged need something different, intimate and dedicated to their special requirements.  This is what NJC pioneered.

NJC was a partnership effort.  Although Jim McColl provided the original impetus, other major businesses provided financial support.  The Scottish Government was a partner from the start and increased its contribution significantly in the last two years.  Glasgow City Council also invested in NJC, if on a smaller scale.  However, funds were eventually exhausted and no mechanism was found to give the school a sustainable future.

In the end, being a proven success story was not enough.  An education system that is disturbingly short of successes hasn’t been able to keep this one going.  It is tempting, but futile, to allocate blame.  Much more important is to learn lessons and build into the system a capacity for bold and successful innovation in the future.

Keir Bloomer, is a member or Reform Scotland’s Advisory Board and Chair of the Commission on School Reform.