Back to school: but are Scots classrooms up to the mark?
As our children head back to school this week with the government's much vaunted Curriculum for Excellence yet to be implemented, Fiona MacLeod and Eddie Barnes ask whether the Scottish education system is fit for purpose
THE floors have been polished, the coats of paint plastered on. As Scotland's pupils reluctantly make their way back to school this week after the annual summer break, what differences will they see?
This was supposed to be the year when Scotland's schools education entered a brave newera. A new "Curriculum for Excellence", coordinating all learning from the age ofthree to 18, was to have swung into action.
Education was to be focused on creating "confident individuals", "responsible citizens" and "effective contributors".
A new "joined-up" system of learning was to begin.
But the programme has been delayed amid claims that, if it had gone ahead, teachers might have goneonstrike. Staff warned they needed new books and more money to ensure its success. One education chief –amember of the team that created it – described some elements of the scheme as "complete nonsense".
So how exactly are our schools faring? The critics have been forthcoming in recent months. Earlier this week, Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, described the idea of Scotland having the best education system as "one of the great education myths".
And as policy has diverged since devolution, the critics claim that England has now moved ahead of Scotland. Data held by the Office for National Statistics recently showed that in both Maths and English, 15-year-old pupils south of the Border had moved ahead of their Scottish counterparts in 2007.
Defenders of the Scottish system are defiant. English pupils, they argue, areover-tested, pointing to examples of seven- year-olds going home suffering from stress.England's more disparate system, replete with grammar schools, city academies and specialist schools, has fractured the comprehensive ideal. In Scotland, that ideal remains true, they say.
The debate will heat up as the schools fill up this week. Here, Scotland on Sunday provides its own report card on the state of the nation's schools.
CLASS SIZES AND TEACHER NUMBERS
REDUCING class sizes and the number of teachers in Scotland are linked issues, as the SNP in its election manifesto promised to maintain teacher numbers to allow class sizes to be reduced.
However, councils faced with their commitment not to raise council tax, in return for being given freedom to spend their budgets as they like, have been cutting teacher numbers as pupil numbers fall.
The SNP vowed to reduce the first three years of primary school to just 18 pupils to a class. However, legal challenges by parents at popular schools have revealed a loophole that the only maximum enshrined in law is 30.
A landmark legal ruling on the issue last year demonstrated councils had no right to refuse entry to a child on the basis that the class was already full at 18.
In response several councils which have oversubscribed schools, such as Edinburgh and East Renfrewshire, have ditched the policy in fear of further legal action. As a result, in some areas, class sizes are actually rising.
Government statistics earlier this year showed 14 of Scotland's 32 councils had made no progress on the target.
However, reduction of class sizes is a main area of campaigning for the powerful teaching union, the EIS, and it is unlikely to let this pledge sink quietly without trace.
Ronnie Smith, EIS general secretary, at the union's annual conference in June, called for legislation on the class size maximum to compel local authorities to comply.
He accused some councils of "consciously" and "deliberately" failing to reduce class sizes, considering themselves "bigger than the government when it comes to running schools".
The Scottish Government has said it is considering changing the law but there are no immediate plans to do so.
On the opposing side, some don't believe smaller class sizes would make a real difference.
THIS week children across Scotland should have all been introduced to the new school system, A Curriculum for Excellence. However, after much pressure from teachers who felt there was too little time to adapt, it was delayed until next year.
Teachers at their main union conferences this summer both discussed strike action if more money wasn't found for new materials and training for teachers on the new system.
Scotland's biggest teaching union, the EIS, also warned in June that more investment, both financial and of time, was needed.
The problem for the Scottish Government and education secretary Fiona Hyslop, right, is that there are loud and respected voices expressing concern.
Former education director Keir Bloomer, a member of the team that created Curriculum for Excellence, described it as "not good enough" just last month.
The former council leader in Clackmannanshire was particularly critical of the literacy element, calling it "complete nonsense".
Although he stressed he was still supportive of the system as "the only game in town", he said it would have too little impact on the way teachers worked.
Although state school headteachers are normally banned from speaking out, independent school heads have joined the chorus of concern saying they won't be introducing it because they don't feel it's ready.
Brought in to replace the previous system, known as the 5 to 14 guidelines, the aims of Curriculum for Excellence are summarised in the "four capacities" it hopes pupils will achieve: as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.
It covers a wider range of ages, from three to 18, in a bid to co-ordinate learning better from nursery right through to final exams.
The new system is intended to be a more joined-up system with teachers working together across subjects. For example, it could mean if pupils are studying Ancient Egypt in history, they could use the pyramids to study angles in maths.
Almost universally people are in favour of it in principle. How and when it is going to be delivered are causing concern.
May fail the final test
FREE school meals were a core part of the Scottish Government's election manifesto and progress is being made, albeit in piecemeal fashion.
However, funding has attracted criticism as the rolling out of the programme is not attracting additional money for councils.
In June it emerged the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) planned to ask the government for more cash, claiming there would be a 15 million shortfall for the policy next year, mostly due to set-up costs.
From August this year, parents who are entitled to the maximum working tax credit and the maximum child tax credit will be included.
And from August 2010, the plan is that all pupils in the first three years of primary school will be entitled to free school meals.
Under the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition Act) (Scotland) 2007, schools have an obligation to promote healthy living and provide nutritious lunches. The guidance, which does not cover packed lunches brought in from home, has been written for catering providers and staff responsible for menu planning, and for buying, preparing and serving in schools.
The policy was created in reaction to a problem highlighted by the Scottish Public Health Observatory, which warned in 2007 that obesity among adults had increased by 46 per cent since 1995.
And in the same year a report revealed Scotland was the second fattest nation in the developed world, behind only America.
However, a potential problem of free, healthy school meals is that too many children simply ignore the healthy option and head out of the school gates to the chip shop or bring in junk food.
An independent report into the pilot of the free school meals scheme showed too many children ate only the parts of the meal they liked, threatening a key aim of the scheme to tackle obesity.
The Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) said the government needed to find ways to get children to eat vegetables for the scheme to be successful.
Proof will be in the pudding
DISCIPLINE AND TRUANCY
THE behaviour of Scotland's pupils has been a growing concern among teachers. Violent attacks on teachers and pupils are on the rise. Between 2005-06 and 2006-07 the number of reported physical attacks on teachers rose by 2.2 per cent to 485.
The total number of recorded incidents, including verbal abuse, rose by 4.3 per cent that year to 4,608. But they remain a small part of a far bigger problem – that of low-level disruption. A lack of respect for teachers can lead to some pupils disrupting those in the class who are willing to learn.
Truancy has been effectively tackled in a number of schools by the introduction of electronic registration and systems which alert a parent by text message if their child does not appear.
But this may be contributing to the rise in low-level disruption as it is the children who don't want to be in the classroom who are acting up. There is also a great deal of pressure on headteachers to keep exclusion statistics low and so only a small number of pupils are permanently excluded. Even when they are permanently removed, they are often simply enrolled in another school, where the same problems emerge, creating a cycle of poor behaviour and exclusion.
The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association expressed concerns that teachers were not necessarily told when a pupil previously excluded for attacking a teacher joined their class.
The Conservatives believe headteachers should be given more power to remove children permanently, but the problem of disruptive, unruly pupils is a difficult one to solve.
More homework needed
SNP ministers have come under sustained fire for the past two years over their plans to redevelop Scotland's crumbling schools. Promising to match the previous Labour-led administration "brick for brick" in building new schools, it wasn't until earlier this summer that they unveiled a long-term 1.25bn investment scheme which, it says, will pay for 55 new primaries and secondaries. And even this, say the SNP's critics, will go nowhere near far enough in replacing poor buildings with classrooms fit for purpose
The row has centred on the use of the Private Finance Initiative, utilised by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to build their own schools. Alex Salmond ruled it out, saying the scheme effectively mortgaged the taxpayer for decades.
Education secretary Fiona Hyslop says the Government's new investment programme will provide state of the art schools for almost 35,000 pupils. The programme will be managed by a new quango, the Scottish Futures Trust – it was originally conceived to find new not-for-profit funding but is now effectively an advisory board.
Labour council chiefs have attacked Hyslop's plans, saying the cash will only scratch the surface. Furthermore, schools are still waiting to find out which ones will be rebuilt. Meanwhile, SNP ministers have conceded that the SFT could lever in private finance in order to find the funds required.
While 55 new schools may indeed be built, that will still leave far too many in a poor state. Recent figures found that 134 school buildings were in a bad condition – class D – while a further 698 were considered poor – class C.
SNP ministers blame under-investment from previous administrations. Audit Scotland, Scotland's main public finance watchdog, says it could take until 2028 before all schools are adequate.
ATTAINMENT – SECONDARY
EXAM results have remained roughly steady for several years with occasional slight dips and rises overall and in various subjects.
However, the fact almost every pupil attains Standard Grades has led to criticism that the system is too easy and not good enough preparation for the tougher Highers.
This year the pass rate was 98.5 per cent, up from 98 per cent last year.
Overall, the number of exams taken dropped from 776,161 last year to 767,936, mostly due to the fall in the number of Standard Grades taken.
This year, 358,459 Standard Grades were sat, but the figure has been dropping for several years, from a high of 415,845 in 2006.
Pressure became so high that Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, earlier this year announced they would be scrapped and replaced by a new system of Nationals from 2013.
They, in turn, have provoked consternation that could see a fifth of school leavers not sitting an externally assessed exam, as the lower qualification National 4 will be internally assessed.
Compulsory tests in literacy and numeracy have also attracted criticism. Teachers say designing them for school leavers is too late to rectify any problems and they could become badges of failure.
On the upside for Scottish exams, the Advanced Higher brought in to replace the CSYS (Certificate of Sixth Year Studies) has been increasing in popularity despite fears it would prove too expensive for many schools. That could still be borne out as the rise is mainly in the private sector.
Showing willingness to improve
ATTAINMENT – PRIMARY
Unlike in England, Scottish children do not undergo official national testing so there is no year-on-year comparison. However, primary performance has been given under-par ratings in recent international studies.
The Timss (Trends in International Maths and Science Survey) report found Scotland's performance in science lagged behind many other western nations.
The problem was laid at the door of teacher training. The report found only around half of pupils in primary five had teachers who felt well prepared to teach science to that age group.
And last June the Scottish Survey of Achievement backed up Timss, as it found not enough older children at primary school attained expected levels in science, with no improvement in four years.
Although almost 55 per cent of P3 pupils achieved the required standard, that figure dropped to just 6 per cent in P7.
Moves are being made to address the lack of knowledge of the subject among primary teachers, and money has been invested in training at Scotland's science centres.
But as these are only located in the main cities it is impractical to think this will have a major effect. Until science education is taught to every teacher of older primary children, this problem is unlikely to rectify itself.
Must do better
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