SCOTTISH schools cannot claim to be the world-leading institutions of former days and are failing to give pupils in poorer parts of the country a fair chance, a major report on the state of education has concluded.
The interim report of the Commission on School Reform, which includes a former education minister, leading head-teachers and council chiefs, concludes today that, while education here remains among the world’s highest achieving, Scotland is “relatively weaker” compared to other countries than at the start of the millennium.
It highlights existing research to warn that the drop-off in writing and reading skills as children go through secondary school must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
And, in a damaging analysis of the status quo, it slams the attainment gap between those in deprived parts of the country and those in the most affluent neighbourhoods. The failure to tackle the gap means the current set up cannot be described as “in any meaningful sense equitable”.
Previous research quoted in the report shows that, by S2, pupils in the poorest parts of the country are achieving standards half that of those in the richest.
Some schools in poorer areas are managing to maintain high standards, the report notes, but it warns that the system fails to learn the lessons of good practice and use it elsewhere.
The interim report, which was commissioned by two think-tanks, Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, concludes that the uniformity of the Scottish school system “may be a source of weakness as well as a strength”.
To correct the balance, it suggests that there is a need for greater innovation and diversity within the school sector, with head teachers given more power to decide matters for themselves.
The group who have been studying the sector include Peter Peacock, the education minister from 2003 to 2006, David Cameron, a former director of education, and Joan Stringer, the principal of Edinburgh Napier University.
The Group’s chairman, Keir Bloomer, said Scottish schools continued to perform “well” by international standards.
He added: “However, we should not delude ourselves about our position or allow ourselves to be complacent. Scotland’s relative international position has slipped although the decline may have been arrested. Scotland was without doubt a world leader but that time has passed, and in order for it to return we must improve.”
The report comes with the school sector preparing to introduce new national exams in secondary schools in the next school year amid complaints from some teachers that the reforms are under-cooked.
Meanwhile, the Scottish system has rejected moves in England, where the Education Secretary Michael Gove is removing schools from local authority control.
The report’s key findings conclude that the country’s international status is “slipping”, pointing to OECD figures which suggest around 19 countries or regions have a better score than Scotland, out of 59 participating nations.
Performance is heavily dependent on levels of deprivation, with S2 pupils in poorer areas half as likely to perform well. It concludes that, as a result, “opposing systemic change on the basis of preserving equity does not withstand scrutiny”.
The report also says fear of treating pupils as “guinea pigs” has stymied previous attempts at reform. It concludes: “The result has been incremental rather than transformational improvement, and continued weaknesses.”
The group is now set to consider whether individual schools should be given more say over their own governance.
Writing in The Scotsman today, Mr Bloomer also suggests it will also consider “the place of diversity in a system noted for its uniformity”.
And while it backs the new curriculums, the report also says there remains a pressing need to focus on the basics of reading and writing, noting that, by S2, only 40 per cent of pupils are considered to be “well- established” or doing better than expected.
“There remains an imperative need to ensure that all young people achieve satisfactory standards of literacy and numeracy while at schools,” the report concludes.
Education secretary Michael Russell said last night the latest comparisons showed “we have halted the decline in our international performance”.
He added: “I am determined to see us rise back up the rankings. It is essential that local authorities and schools take advantage of the opportunities Curriculum for Excellence offers to transform our schools and communicate the benefits of the radical changes to ensure young people are better equipped to succeed.”
However, Hugh Henry MSP, Scottish Labour’s spokesman on education and lifelong learning said: “This report confirms that pupils from the least privileged areas are half as likely to perform well as those from better off backgrounds.”
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith MSP said: “The central message of this report seems to me to be very clear; there is absolutely no reason why Scottish schools cannot be first class, but the current structures won’t allow this to happen, so we need to change them.”