Leaders: Gauntlet thrown down over education

There was a time when Scotland prided itself on the quality of its school education. Inspired by the Church of Scotland, there was a school in every parish producing the lads o’ pairts.

Yet, our classrooms are no longer dominated by ferocious dominies drumming learning into the heads of intimidated but receptive pupils. Times have changed. Teachers have changed. Pupils have changed. And often for the best.

Yet, consider this: “Scotland has good schools. Yet it is no longer world-leading. Other countries are catching up: a good number have already overtaken. The system is not in crisis, but action needs to be taken now if Scottish education is to be once again among the best in the world.”

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These are not our words, but are taken from an article we publish today by Keir Bloomer, a former education director who chaired the Commission on School Reform, published yesterday. Along with experts, figures connected to all the major parties, Mr Bloomer has issued a rallying cry for change to restore Scotland’s place in the educational world. The report merits close reading, but we could highlight just a few points that deserve attention from the Scottish Government, opposition politicians and the councils, which still nominally control education.

Scotland has been inhibited by the high level of uniformity within the system, the report argues. There should, it says, be more room for diversity. Schools, and their heads, should be given more scope to innovate and diversify, provided they meet certain national policy criteria.

Radical? Well, as it could be seen as a further devolution of power, it should not be in Scotland. But many will say it is. South of the Border, successive Labour and Tory governments have created room for different types of school, often free from local authority control. Why not here?

Then there is the need for what the commission calls a “very early-years service”, operating in some cases from birth to support the children of the less well-off. We know poverty contributes to lack of attainment and efforts to help over decades have not succeeded.

What better way to spend taxpayers’ money could there be than to try to combat the effect of poverty right from the start – to give vulnerable children help when it can really make a difference? If paying for it meant, say, giving up free prescriptions and bus passes for the better-off, it would be hard to argue it was completely without merit.

Not all of the ideas in the report are so clear-cut in terms of their obvious benefits. Given the concerns over the Curriculum for Excellence among both parents and teachers, its centrality to the hoped-for improvement in Scottish education is a concern.

The commission should be applauded for starting with the reality of where Scottish education is today, not the myth, and making some radical proposals for restoring our place in the world. Over to you, politicians.

NHS success should be simple to replicate

When setting out to tackle problems, governments and policymakers frequently resort to making things too complicated. They over-regulate, over-govern and become overbearing. Such an approach is often counterproductive.

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But here’s a thing: hospital death rates in Scotland are coming down. An estimated 8,500 lives have been saved in recent years, according to NHS chiefs – who say hospitals in Scotland are now among the safest in the world.

And guess what? It was not done by the imposition of massively bureaucratically complex systems explained in impenetrable management jargon but by taking common sense, simple, though tough, measures.

The kinds of things put in place as part of the national programme that has accounted for the welcome decline in death rates include safety checklists completed before operations, more ward rounds, double-checking medicines and an early warning system for critically-ill patients.

NHS Scotland’s clinical director, Dr Jason Leitch, explains that the safety programme, which is “unique in the world”, works by “doing the simple things every day to every patient”. Dr Leitch adds it may seem counter-intuitive, but in the complexity of an operating theatre, for example, simplicity is hard to find.

Dr Leitch, his colleagues, and the Scottish Government which introduced the programme, deserve credit for the death rate reduction. However, we wonder how many other areas of public service could benefit from doing the small things rigorously and doing them well. Quite a few, we would wager.