Radical English reform set for Scottish schools

The First Minister helps deli owner Aftab Baig yesterday in Glasgow Central. Picture: Wattie Cheung

The First Minister helps deli owner Aftab Baig yesterday in Glasgow Central. Picture: Wattie Cheung

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NICOLA Sturgeon is looking at importing radical education reform from London that would see the brightest young teachers parachuted into Scotland’s under-performing schools, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

The First Minister is examining a highly successful educational model from south of the Border as part of a drive to tackle inequality in the classroom and drive up standards.

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Writing in today’s Scotland on Sunday, Sturgeon says she is prepared to learn lessons from the “London Challenge” initiative which has been highly praised for turning round schools in the UK capital.

Tomorrow Sturgeon will announce her plans at a press conference in Dundee with her newly appointed education secretary, Angela Constance. Ahead of her announcement, Sturgeon writes that it is unacceptable that children in the most deprived areas of Scotland are under-achieving at school.

In her article, Sturgeon ­urges everyone involved in teaching youngsters to broaden horizons and look at what can be learned from other parts of the UK as education becomes a key battleground in the forthcoming general election.

Sturgeon emphasises that she will steer clear of the free school, free-market ideology championed by the Conservatives under former education secretary Michael Gove, which gave more powers to headteachers.

But the First Minister says that she is looking at the “London Challenge” model, which was introduced by the last Labour Government and saw a dramatic rise in standards through schools working together. London Challenge also saw the introduction of a teacher training scheme, Teach First, which attracts bright graduates to the most challenging schools.

Sturgeon writes: “I want all of us with an interest in education to broaden our horizons to what is happening internationally – and, yes to other parts of the UK. We will have no truck with the ideological nonsense of Gove and the Tories, but we will not shy away from learning lessons from initiatives such as the London Challenge. It has seen real sustained improvements in attainment and we are studying it with interest.”

The London Challenge was launched in 2003 with the aim of improving schools by encouraging collaboration rather than competition.

At its core was a commitment to breaking the link between deprivation and low attainment, a problem which plagues schools in the poorest parts of Scotland.

A zero-tolerance approach to low expectations was adopted and data was used to track pupils’ progress until the scheme was abandoned in 2011. It also saw the adoption of “pupil pledges” to give young Londoners access to sport, the arts and university life.

Tomorrow’s announcement will also see Sturgeon underline the SNP’s commitment to free university tuition. The package will also include the government’s plans to provide an “attainment adviser” for every local authority and a new “read, write, count” literacy and numeracy campaign in primaries one to three.

These initiatives are aimed at overturning statistics, which suggest that in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas in Scotland fewer than one person in three leaves school with at least one Higher.

That compares with the four out of every five pupils who leave with at least one Higher in the more affluent areas.

Although education is entirely devolved to Scotland, it is emerging as a key contest in the battle between the SNP and Labour as the general election approaches.

Yesterday Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy outlined a £25 million plan to raise the attainment of Scotland’s poorest children.

Using revenue from Labour’s plan to create a 50p tax rate, Murphy promised to double the number of teaching assistants in every primary school associated with the 20 poorest performing secondaries in Scotland.

On a visit to the 6VT Youth Cafe in Edinburgh, Murphy said he would introduce a new literacy programme for schools that would involve the recruitment of specialists to support pupils in the associated primary schools and first and second year pupils in each of the 20 secondary schools. Support would be offered to parents so that they can learn with their children.

There would also be a literacy support programme for looked-after children. Murphy also pledged that Education Scotland would carry out an annual review on progress in tackling educational inequality in Scotland’s schools through the schools inspectorate programme. This would include a specific report on looked-after children, and the cabinet ­secretary for education and lifelong learning will report to the parliament on progress ­annually.

“A government school improvement scheme that worked”

The London Challenge has been hailed by the Times Educational Supplement as “that rare beast, a government school improvement scheme that worked”.

The scheme has transformed the UK capital’s schools from being the worst in England to among the best in Europe.

Launched by the Labour government in 2003, it involved a huge injection of funding and education experts to improve the poorest-performing secondary schools.

Primary schools joined the Challenge five years later, when it was also extended to Manchester and the Black Country, north-west of Birmingham, before being wound up by the Coalition government in 2011.

The initiative has seen London go from having the lowest proportion of pupils in England achieving basic GCSE pass levels to topping the table.

The creation of a concentration of expertise is seen as a key to its success.

This has included by collaboration between schools rather than their previous fierce competition, and an innovative teacher training scheme, Teach First, which attracts bright graduates to the most challenging schools.

The charity has already held talks with Scottish education officials about operating north of the Border.

Education officials have also been praised for working with London schools rather than simply imposing changes.

Negative labelling of schools, such as being “under performing”, was replaced with positive terms such as those needing the “keys to success”.

These all helped to create a new “high expectations” culture among schools and a “no excuses” attitude to under performance.

Chris Husbands, director of the University of London’s Institute of Education, said the city’s achievement was the “international education success story of the past ten years”.

However, a Bristol University report last year said a significant part of the improvements should be attributed to an influx of eager-to-learn, high-achieving children of immigrants.

Non-white children make up two-thirds of GCSE pupils in London compared to one in five elsewhere in England.

The study concluded: “Once ethnicity was taken into account in the analysis, the London effect in pupil progress disappears.”

Research leader Professor Simon Burgess said: “There is nothing inherently different in the ability of pupils from different ethnic backgrounds, but the children of relatively recent immigrants typically have greater hopes and expectations of education and are, on average, more likely to be engaged with their schoolwork.”

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