• Many pupils suffering from poor education in Scotland
• One-fifth of leavers lack basic skills
• But critic says report does not take teaching pressures into account
"Scotland's education system generally performs well against international comparisons, but it is the case that our overall good performance masks the fact that a significant minority are under-performing in terms of educational achievement." - Fiona Hyslop, SNP education spokeswoman
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THOUSANDS of Scottish pupils are still being failed by weak leadership, poor teaching and a postcode lottery of education provision across the country, according to the first comprehensive report on our education system.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) declared that the majority of pupils were performing well and praised the efforts of the vast majority of staff.
But Graham Donaldson, the HMIe chief inspector, pointed out that "a small but significant number of learners are let down by the weaknesses in the education they receive".
Mr Donaldson said failing teachers should no longer be "tolerated" and may have to be removed from class if their performance did not improve. The report also claimed that the initiatives introduced by the Scottish Executive were hampering teaching in many schools.
And it warned that one-fifth of pupils were leaving school with little prospect of either getting a job or going on to college or university because they lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Ronnie Smith, the general-secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country's largest teaching union, described the report as "a fair and balanced score-card".
He added: "Some headteachers focus more on the bureaucracy, administration and management and not enough on the teaching and learning and that's something which many teachers would acknowledge is the case.
"Rather than act as some sort of arm's-length sergeant-major, headteachers need to get back to what they used to be - their job title designates them first and foremost as teachers."
The HMIe report, which is the first of its kind to assess standards from pre-school through to the college sector, points out that the proportion of headteachers judged to be either "fair" or "unsatisfactory" remained at between 15 and 20 per cent - the same as four years ago.
Mr Donaldson also said the performance of college principals and local authority education directors had to improve. "We have not seen sufficient improvement in leadership overall," he said.
"We are still reporting important weaknesses in leadership across all formal education sectors."
The report went on to say that there were "important weaknesses" in a "significant number" of pre-school centres, schools and colleges.
"In too many cases there is an unacceptable variation in the quality of learning and teaching across classes," it said.
"Encouragingly, actions taken following inspection or review are bringing about positive, and in some cases very substantial, improvement.
"However, some problems or weaknesses are deep-seated and may appear intractable. It is essential that any such problems are identified at an early stage and necessary action is taken before they can impact so directly on the learners involved."
The report also revealed that HMIe is set to publish a separate report on the performance of individual education authorities amid concerns that some were performing significantly worse than others.
Mr Donaldson said: "There is considerable variation in performance across education authorities and some have much work to do to match the standards of the best."
The chief inspector also said that while the Executive education reforms offered the potential to address the concerns contained in the report, more work had to be done to ensure they were implemented effectively.
He said: "The number and variety of national and local initiatives represents a considerable challenge to those who provide education, and sensible prioritisation has been difficult to achieve."
The report, Improving Scottish Education, highlighted concerns about leadership in every sector reviewed.
At the launch yesterday at Hampden Stadium in Glasgow, Mr Donaldson said: "Since our last report we've not seen any improvement in the percentage of situations where leadership is fair or unsatisfactory.
"So we're still looking at in excess of 15 per cent across all sectors where leadership is fair or unsatisfactory. Leadership is too important to allow that to continue."
Mr Donaldson also warned that too many pupils were being let down by poor teachers.
He said: "We really cannot afford to have inconsistency in terms of quality of teaching, which means inconsistency in the quality of a child's education. We are tolerating variations in levels of teaching inside schools that we simply should not tolerate.
"We must address under-performance in terms of meeting the needs of learners more vigorously than we have in the past."
Asked afterwards if that meant removing failing teachers from schools, Mr Donaldson replied: "At one end of the spectrum that is the case. Sometimes simply operating in a different way can help a teacher, but sometimes it can mean they are in the wrong job."
Bill McGregor, the general-secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland (HAS), said the report did not take account of the pressures school managers now face.
He said: "There's no mention of staff shortages or a crowded curriculum where people don't have time to do their own thing. But where leadership is sorely needed - and they've gone down every avenue to try to improve it and it's still not there - then the only answer is to change the leader and we don't have a problem with that."
Key strengths of the education system identified in the report included the confidence in the system expressed by parents, pupils and students, the overall quality of the curriculum, teaching and learning, and the high quality and commitment of staff.
It also highlighted the fact that the performance of Scots pupils in reading, maths and science was in the top third of OECD developed countries.
Peter Peacock, the education minister, said he acknowledged the criticisms contained in the report, but added that he was confident that the measures were in place to address them.
Mr Peacock said: "HMIe's findings make clear that there is a great deal on which we can all build in Scottish education and the current system we have in Scotland has the capacity to meet the challenges set out.
"There is no room for complacency, however, if we are to meet these challenges."
Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokeswoman, said that the report "lays bare serious weaknesses" in the education system.
She said: "Scotland's education system generally performs well against international comparisons, but it is the case that our overall good performance masks the fact that a significant minority are under-performing in terms of educational achievement."
Guidance for future would have helped
THE report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education is a very good statement of where we're at in every sector of Scottish education.
In terms of pointing out where we would like to get to in the future it is equally good because we all agree that improvements need to be made.
But where it is not so good is that it doesn't actually tell us how we are going to get to where we all want to be.
There's not a lot of description as to how to move the whole Scottish education system forward, which would have been useful in helping us to plan for the future.
In terms of the criticisms levelled at leadership, it must also be noted that the report takes no account of the difficulties currently facing headteachers across the country.
There's no mention of staff shortages in many subjects or of a crowded curriculum where people do not have time to do their own thing.
If you go into any primary or secondary school classroom right now, people are working to the clock - it is 35 minutes for this and 50 minutes for that.
The whole thing is so tightly scheduled that there is no room for the freedom you need to think and to develop your teaching skills, and all that impacts on the quality of teaching and leadership. It would have been good if the report had added those caveats.
However, our organisation would agree that where leadership is sorely needed and the education authorities have used every avenue to try to improve it and it's still not getting better, then the only answer is to change the leader.
I think that where weaknesses in leadership are identified, something must be done, because the education of children is too important to jeopardise. But the regime that finds the weaknesses has to be itself robust.
You have to have good reason, you've got to know in exactly what area they are weak and the director of education who is taking the decision to remove the headteacher must be able to prove that he has good grounds to do so. You also have to support headteachers, but if that does not work you have to have a change.
Bill McGregor is the general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland.