Brian Monteith: Scottish schools have a lot to learn about raising standards

Students at the Edinburgh School of Music
Students at the Edinburgh School of Music
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A controversial plan to close the Edinburgh School of Music says a lot about ambition in education, says Brian Monteith

Two tales from contemporary education show just how poor the management of our local schools has become and how parents can take action to find their own solution when the system fails to meet parents’ aspirations.

In our capital, the City of Edinburgh Music School, a national centre of excellence based in Broughton High School and Flora Stevenson Primary, is under the threat of substantial local authority cuts and the dispersal of its teaching that will make it neither national nor a centre of excellence.

Local authorities have been hard hit in recent years by the Scottish Government and this year has been especially bad. In a deal supported by the Greens, the SNP cut council budgets by £216 million – when Nicol Sturgeon’s own budget was climbing by £501 million in real terms. Indeed the Scottish Government’s figures showed it had more funding at its disposal in both cash and real terms than its previous high point of spending in 2010-11.

The cuts now being felt are not Tory austerity, they are decidedly of a home-grown variety that in supermarket terms could only be branded with a Saltire and say “made in Scotland”.

Now is the time when councils look to fix their budgets for next year and in seeking to find £21 million of savings City of Edinburgh Council proposed cutting £363,000 from the City of Edinburgh Music School. Across the city music teaching would be reduced in general with the City of Edinburgh Music School being used to cover that falling provision. The savings would be achieved by dispersing its specialist teaching over eight schools rather than two and by taking larger classes.

It is claimed that more pupils will receive specialist teaching but larger classes are the antithesis of tutoring gifted and talented musicians. To provide cover for this blatant political move the council has claimed it is trying to provide more equity between pupils – but it is doing this by lowering standards for those that need stretched and redirecting resources that should be provided to all schools in any case.

The dumbing-down of music school teaching is sadly typical of how local authorities, who are given additional funds by the Scottish Government to provide such national centres of excellence, are willing to sacrifice even their jewels in the crown so long as they retain control of schools and the supply of funding.

Such has been the public uproar that Edinburgh’s SNP/Labour administration is set to withdraw the proposal and the Scottish Government had to signal it did not approve – even though it was its own cuts that precipitated the crisis.

This shoddy treatment of a prized educational treasure makes the case for direct funding of national centres of excellence all the stronger. It also raises the question, that if this is how local councils treat their schools held in the highest regard, how much worse do they treat schools that have genuine reputational problems due to poor academic attainment?

What can be done to protect schools from political expediency and give parents corrective accountability? The City of Edinburgh Music School fortunately has many allies, but how can parents respond when everyday local education fails them?

James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, has travelled the world researching how parent-led schools have emerged when the state system has disappointed or failed pupils and their parents. This week he is speaking in Edinburgh at the launch of Schools’ Educational Trust, a new Scottish charity that is behind a number of initiatives, such as helping headteachers to provide leadership and establishing the first low-cost independent school that even low income families might afford.

Tooley will explain how parents in even the poorest areas of Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa, when faced with state schools that do not deliver what is expected of them, have created low-cost independent schools that perform better. Costing between £5-£10 per month, there are some 400,000 such schools in India, while in Lagos State, Nigeria, a school census discovered there are 12,000.

Tooley has established that in urban areas it is not untypical for 70% of pupils to be in these new private schools with it falling to 30% in rural areas. While the low cost is important, Tooley has also found that the accountability of schools to the parents has been an important attraction.

Tests of random samples of pupils attending low-cost private schools, while controlling for background variables, showed they significantly out-performed their state-run counterparts.

Can the findings of Tooley in Africa and Asia have any relevance here in the UK, and more particularly for Scotland – where the education system is now falling behind in international league tables – including countries such as Vietnam? One might think not but Tooley is determined to help establish low-cost independent schools in Britain and is finding that parents are interested.

His first venture in County Durham is well advanced and intends to launch next year, now he is helping the Schools’ Educational Trust to explore the possibility of establishing a similar school in Scotland.

Designed to provide a good education without expensive buildings (many long-standing independents occupy listed architectural gems that are costly to maintain and run) or extensive extra curricular activities that require dedicated facilities and staff, Tooley reckons it is possible to provide a low cost private school for £52 a week or £2,700 a year.

For a child’s education that can look attractive. In comparative terms some family holidays cost more and parents could be willing to make sacrifices to meet that level of commitment for an investment previously thought of as being beyond them.

The exclusive image of independent schools is primarily because they are too expensive for parents other than those who can afford fees of £12,000 upwards from their family income – after tax. Having already contributed to the cost of a state education they could access if they wish, it takes a great deal of belief for parents to spend so much more again.

Now Tooley’s initiative could change that perception – without impacting on the existing independents, whose traditions, academic record and family connections, will always make them attractive to wealthier professional families.

Could the introduction of low-cost private schools provide an alternative for parents that will at last force our state sector to reform its education system? James Tooley might be the proverbial butterfly in the education jungle to make all the difference.

• Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org