Leaders: Time to turn educational myth to reality

ALL nations are founded on mythology. As we enter referendum year, it is interesting to remember Scotland’s defining national myth revolves not around battles, but on the idea that ours was the first nation to achieve universal adult literacy.

Scotlands school pupils dont make the global top 20 in attainment in reading, maths or science. Picture: AP
Scotlands school pupils dont make the global top 20 in attainment in reading, maths or science. Picture: AP

And so, the myth goes, was born an educated people who went on to discover much of modern technology and give the world some of its greatest literature. There is much truth in this view of the traditional superiority of Scottish education. But what was true in the time of Robert Burns, or even in 1950, is definitely not true today.

According to the Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa), Scotland’s school pupils don’t make the global top 20 in attainment in reading, maths or science. New figures just released by Pisa are even more damning. They show that attainment levels in Scottish state schools are fully 10 per cent poorer than in private schools, even when allowance is made for family background. The issue is not that Scottish education is failing in any systemic way. Scotland’s universities punch well above their global weight. Older pupils in Scotland’s state schools (beyond S2) do very well in international comparisons. But that must not blind us to the fact that attainment in the first two years of Scottish secondary school (the age group measured by Pisa tests) is lagging badly. Or to the fact that the problem lies somewhere in the state sector.

Scotland’s critical educational failure is the poor literary and maths attainment in the later years of primary education – principally concentrated in areas of low social income and particularly affecting young males. The solution is partly to do with targeting resources. But it surely also has to do with educational leadership and the formation of pupils’ characters. Rather than bashing the private schools – given the gravity of the problem – it might be reasonable to see if they have anything more to offer in this regard. Instead of criticising, we might think about tying their charitable status to an insistence on closer partnerships with state schools. The scale of tax incentives could even be made contingent on private institutions demonstrably improving educational standards in neighbouring state schools.

If we can contemplate close partnerships between schools of different denominations, then surely we can contemplate partnerships between state and private schools – something that might also reduce the social divide. The core problem is multi-faceted and involving private schools is by no means the whole solution – but why not think laterally and see if their successful experience can be put to use?

Today, China and the other Asian economic tigers have adopted Scotland’s early road to success through prioritising basic education. They prove it still works. Enough of excuses: it is time to turn our national myth into 21st-century reality.

Monarch’s simple message of hope

THE first Christmas broadcast to the Commonwealth by a monarch was delivered – live over the “wireless” – by George V in 1932. Yesterday, his granddaughter kept up the good tradition – broken once only in 1969. Her Majesty’s words were simple and reflective, but no worse for being so.

Her theme was the birth of her great-grandson Prince George. She noted that the arrival of any new baby gives people the chance to think about the future with “renewed hope” – as it did the first Christmas.

The year now ending had its dark moments, of course. Mother Nature gave us everything from a giant meteor exploding over Russia to Typhoon Yolanda, not to mention the storms over Britain in this week.

Civil war gripped Syria. Terrorism continued to strike with its usual blind hand everywhere from a marathon in Boston to a shopping mall in Nairobi.

Yet, on balance, 2014 provided more hope than cause for pessimism. The global economy picked up, the eurozone did not implode, and Britain rediscovered the joys of economic growth. There was a new Pope, the UN passed a new treaty limiting the trade in arms, and science created the first embryonic stem cells through cloning.

We may not see peace on earth in 2014 and goodwill to all men (and women) is notoriously in short supply in Syria and South Sudan at the moment. Yet Christmas is important because it reminds us that just because a great goal is hard to attain does not mean we should not try to achieve it.

Christmas began with a child in a manger, proof that a lowly beginning is not the enemy of hope or human progress.