Euan McColm: Rethink on schools sets new benchmark

AS a rule, when a senior ­politician starts to move away from a “flagship” policy we should be suspicious, maybe even ­angry. Broken promises? ­Terrible things.

But, just occasionally, I’m inclined to give a U-turning minister the benefit of the doubt. Some promises, on examination, are worth breaking.

In that category I would place the “guarantee” of smaller class sizes. A Dutch auction over recent years has seen opposing parties promise ever more teachers playing ever closer attention to ever fewer children. In 2007, the SNP – on the road to Holyrood victory – pledged that kids in primaries one to three would be taught in classes of no more than 18 pupils.

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It sounded great. It wasn’t workable. Government admission of this came in 2010 when the SNP introduced a legal limit of 25 for primary one classes across Scotland. This was sold as proof of commitment to the issue, while the complete failure to deliver that 2007 manifesto pledge was nudged off to one side.

By 2011, the Nationalists were offering “progressive reductions” in class sizes. They had realised anything more was unrealistic. Last week, at Glasgow ­University, the education secretary, Mike Russell, delivered a speech on educational attainment. Entitled “From good to great: building equity and success in Scottish ­education”, it was wide-ranging, frequently critical and substantial.

In the mix was that class-size issue. There was no talk of numbers or targets. Russell spoke of that commitment to “progressive reductions” in class sizes. He told the audience of the government’s “ambition”. And then he moved further away from the simplistic numbers’ game that has obliterated analysis of what is best for schools and pupils. In fact, he questioned whether small classes were the be-all and end-all.

While being personally clear that there was evidence smaller class-sizes did make a difference – especially in areas of ­deprivation – Russell accepted that others didn’t share that view. He went further: it was time to talk about this stuff, to talk about what works. It was time to talk about priorities in the real world, with all of its financial pressures.

Russell’s belief that smaller class sizes are particularly useful in deprived areas is borne out to some extent by studies. But studies frequently show other problems, too, some of which have been too long ­neglected. Some of the most vulnerable children in Scottish schools are boys ­making the transition from primary to secondary. Between P6 and S2, boys are at particular risk of losing their way; going off the rails. Once those boys disengage from the education system, they don’t come back. At best, they end up hopelessly disadvantaged in the jobs’ market, at worst, they end up turning to crime. Smaller class sizes – more attention – for those boys might not have the same broad voter appeal as a policy reaching every child, but it may have a more positive impact on both schools and communities.

Labour is as guilty as the SNP of making cheap election pledges that don’t begin to address the complexities of why schools – and children – fail. It would be reassuring if, on this crucial issue, they and other opposition parties fully engaged.

Early signs are good. There seems to be political will across the Holyrood chamber to work on improving an education system that Russell himself admits is no longer quite the envy of the world.

Along with the promise of a more honest discussion about class sizes, Russell took on the issue of league tables. He agreed that the Labour/Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive of a decade ago was right not to produce them (though you will have noticed that all of the necessary data is available to allow others to produce those annual top-100s that drive up house prices wherever a high performing school can be found).

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I understand Russell considered adopting the model used in Wales, where schools are banded, rather than individually ranked, before choosing a more complicated – but potentially more useful – path. His proposal to fully examine every aspect of a school, from results through to the home lives of students, through to where school leavers end up will create a far more detailed picture of exactly how it is performing. The theory – and it has yet to be tested – is that this will allow schools to aim for realistic improvements within the constraints (my word) of their location and demographic make-up.

Russell’s vision for Scottish education was more thoughtful than anything we’ve heard on the subject for some time. There were other areas raised by him worth exploration, if only we had the space: better, clearer information for parents; pairing of schools – one failing, one thriving – in the hope that shared experience can help create improvements; a focus on training educational leaders; and, possibly, moving tested senior staff on to new roles in more challenging (and challenged) schools.

The education secretary doesn’t wear his intellect lightly, as a rule. In this instance, I think he’s justified in a little pride in some good thinking. But for thoughts to turn to reality, we’ll need to see the proper cross-party co-operation Russell spoke of. That will give the widest possible scope for radical action.

Russell – a fan of ideas, even his harshest critics would concede – has begun to sweep away some of the lazy thinking that’s infected political leadership on education policy. It would be a terrible pity if long overdue action – and a rare case of political focus – were thwarted by petty point scoring of a constitutional nature.

Mike Russell is not an easy politician to love. He doesn’t suffer fools (or indeed, a great number of clever people, either) and he doesn’t always enjoy the warmest relationships with opponents. Regardless, he talked a lot of sense this week. Let’s hope politicians of all parties recognise the opportunity for change he has presented. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm