Leader comment: Follow through needed on school reforms

It seems a distant memory when Scotland was able to claim one of the finest education systems in the world. That mantle has less slipped than tumbled. And a new report confirms that we are continuing to slide.

A study covering more than 100 schools across Scotland by Professor Keith Topping from the School of Education at Dundee University finds that Scottish pupils rank among the worst in the UK when it comes to improvements in reading.

Both Northern Ireland and England fared better than youngsters in Scotland, according to the study. And it presents another challenge for Scotland’s education system after the country fell to its lowest-ever standing in global league tables in reading, maths and science.

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It also comes almost a year after Nicola Sturgeon launched the First Minister’s Reading Challenge as part of a drive to improve literacy standards. Scotland’s pride in its education system, says Prof Topping, is becoming a historical claim rather than one which can be made on the basis of current evidence.

There are now calls for dedicated reading time with “more investigation needed” to assess why performance is struggling. The study finds that while performance is strong among Scots pupils reading “real books”, youngsters don’t seem to be improving. Other factors, he suspects, may be having “some sort of retarded or adverse effect”.

It provides another compelling reason why the Scottish Government needs to press ahead with recent actions it has taken to improve standards and performance. It has provided £750 million through the Scottish Attainment Challenge over the lifetime of the parliament targeted at children and young people most in need, to close the poverty-related attainment gap. This includes £120m going directly to head teachers this year. The First Minister’s Reading Challenge has seen more than 75 per cent of schools signing up. And Education Secretary John Swinney has also unveiled plans to overhaul the education system, aimed at handing more controls to head teachers over the curriculum after admitting that the current status is “not an option”.

These steps are long overdue. But it is going to take more than funding allocation, declarations and a sign-up for reading programmes. Firm and sustained follow-through is needed to keep teachers “on the case”: programme effectiveness and results now need to be closely monitored and followed up.