When Nicola Sturgeon told Scots in August that education was the issue she wanted to be “judged on” during her time in office, it was a defining political moment. The First Minister knew she was shifting the national spotlight on to Scotland’s classrooms and the political knockabout which was likely to follow.
The publication of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) report into the state of Scottish education was a key staging post in Ms Sturgeon’s improvement blueprint for the future. The overall picture is far from bleak, with Scotland still punching well above its weight internationally in many areas. But there was a time when Scottish education was the envy of the world. Those days may be long gone, but is it really such an outlandish aspiration to want to restore this?
The worrying fall in standards in the basics like maths and reading is surely the greatest concern which emerges from the OECD findings. These are the core skills which provide the foundation of learning. The fact that Scotland’s performance in mathematics in particular has been declining for so long should sound alarm bells. And once again the spotlight falls on the gap between rich and poor areas which Ms Sturgeon herself has previously admitted is “unacceptable” and must be turned around.
The call for standardised national testing in primaries is a development which should help tackle this “attainment” gap, despite concerns this could hasten the return of league tables. Most schools already operate some form of testing – with some councils bizarrely buying them in from England. The different systems means effective comparisons are impossible. If Scotland wants to address the gap between rich and poor areas it must identify where the problems exist. A national performance framework will assist this. The First Minister has accepted all 12 recommendations of the OECD report and insists that the government will be “bold” in the changes it makes.
Hard-pressed teachers still coming to terms with the biggest overhaul in Scotland’s classrooms in a generation with the Curriculum for Excellence will welcome the call to reduce the bureaucracy associated with this system. The whole point of this change, parents were told when it was introduced, was that it would leave teachers free to concentrate on teaching and shift the focus away from simply getting youngsters through their exams. The OECD warns, though, this has become a “tick box” exercise and even suggest it should be relaunched and simplified.
It is important that any changes necessary are quickly identified and implemented. Yet another overhaul of Scottish education is not what teachers, pupils or parents need at the moment. Developed nations like Scotland can no longer compete with low wage “tiger” economies in manufacturing products. Education then is at the heart of our economic future. We must instead look to produce a highly educated workforce which will shape the future world.
Police doing themselves no favours
The departure of Sir Stephen House as the first Chief Constable of Police Scotland was supposed to draw a line under a difficult first two years for Scotland’s new national force. It has been plagued by a string of controversies over armed police on the streets, the misuse of stop and search and officers’ failure to respond to a fatal crash on the M9 in Stirlingshire. A recent staff survey found that many officers felt they are losing touch with local people because of the “one-size-fits-all” policing model.
It has meant that the force has been under pressure and firefighting from day one. And as opposition parties scent blood, Police Scotland’s perceived shortcomings have been a staple of ongoing political knockabout at Holyrood. But just as a fresh start beckoned as Sir Stephen stood down, along with Vic Emery from the helm of its watchdog, the Scottish Police Authority, the force has found itself embroiled in a fresh controversy.
A serving officer broke rules about intercepting communications in seeking to uncover journalists’ sources by “spying” on colleagues investigating the murder of prostitute Emma Caldwell. The aim was to uncover where leaks from the case were emanating from. Yesterday, in seeking to defend the officer involved, Deputy Chief Constable Neil Richardson became involved in a row over transparency and accountability during an appearance before MSPs. It stemmed from his refusal to hand over a confidential paper setting out a definition of the word “reckless” which was used in relation to the force’s behaviour.
For a police force which should be desperate to show itself accountable and eager to change it was not an auspicious display.