Allan Massie: New educational structure may bring better results

The McCrone reforms will lead to improvements in time, but changes to the system may be required to improve our schools

"WHETHER you do comparative studies of examination results between Scotland and elsewhere, look at the results of standardised testing carried out across numbers of countries, or listen to what employers say about the abilities of school-leaver recruits, you are forced to the conclusion that Scottish education is not the best we could have."

Few, except those who prefer to stick their head in the sand, will disagree with this judgment expressed by Peter Jones in this newspaper yesterday. They may also agree with him when he writes that "money is not the problem". On average we spend more per pupil than they do in England, but the results are not better.

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However, when he goes on to say that the enactment of the recommendations put forward in the McCrone report ten years ago has not produced the improvement that was intended, and that "any benefits of the pay and conditions deal to educational standards have been hard to detect," one should perhaps register a note of dissent, if only cautiously.

One purpose of the McCrone report was to raise the status of the teaching profession - restore it, one might say, to the position it used to hold. It wasn't simply a matter of improving teachers' pay and working conditions, though this was an essential element of the plan. McCrone hoped to attract higher-quality recruits to a profession that has been declining in status and esteem for at least 40 years.

I don't know of any figures which would show whether this aim has been met, but there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that this may be happening. Anyway let us suppose this is the case. Quite clearly today's young teachers who were still at university, or even at school themselves, when the McCrone report was published, have not yet had time to make their mark. Their influence will already have been felt in some of their classes, but they are still mostly in junior positions.

If, on the other hand, some senior colleagues, disillusioned by years of struggle in an undervalued profession, have been content with the higher salaries and better working conditions and given little in exchange, this would be disappointing but not surprising.

The point is that it takes time for major reforms to bear fruit, just as it takes time for an oil-tanker to alter course. It is therefore far too soon to write off McCrone as a failure.

In Edmund Burke's words, "that which in the first instance may be prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operations".If the first hostile judgment on McCrone may be "more money for less work with no visible improvement in standards", one may yet find that over the years it will have contributed to a raising of these standards simply because more young people of intelligence and ability have been attracted to the teaching profession. Better teachers make for better schools, but it may be some years before their influence is fully felt.

While Peter Jones is right in asserting that "Scottish education is not the best we could have" - something that is probably true of education in most countries - it's also the case that there is a considerable difference between our best schools and our worst ones. Some of the difference may be attributed to social and economic factors rather than to the quality of teaching in the schools.

If, therefore, we were to find means to improve the standard of schools in deprived areas of our cities and in towns where there is an abnormally high level of unemployment and family breakdown, then the average level of attainment would be raised.

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That employers complain, no doubt with justice, about "the abilities of school-leaver recruits" merely highlights the problem. Where schools are good, most pupils go on to further education. It is only where schools are poor that a majority of school-leavers seek to go straight into work.

This disparity between good and bad schools is surely a matter of urgent priority for the education minister, Mike Russell.

There is a case for considering structural reform. Many children, it is said, lose their way in the first couple of years of secondary school. Perhaps the transition comes too early? In the independent sector, the move from junior to senior school is usually made at 13, not 11; at an age, that is to say, when children are judged to be more mature and more capable of being self-reliant. Is there a case for adding at least one more year to primary education or for creating intermediate schools catering for an 11-14 age-group? In a conversation recently with the First Minister, he remarked that it was easier to make the switch from primary to secondary school in his generation because so many children had family support on hand. "My granny lived 100 yards up the road from Linlithgow Academy," he said. Well, many of today's children don't have that sort of family support, and it is easy for 11- and 12-year-olds to be lost in a big secondary, and daunted by the experience of transition from primary school.

Clearly any structural change such as I suggest would pose problems of organisation and the provision of suitable premises. But it might be worth experimenting with such a reform on a limited scale, in areas where the evidence points to low levels of attainment and under-performance.One would again have to accept that it would take time to assess the value of such experiments, but, given the evidence that a fair number of our schools are, for whatever reason, failing to give pupils the education we believe they should get, such experiments are at least worth considering.

Inadequate education makes for an inadequate society, and the days are past when we could complacently believe that Scottish education is a matter for national pride.

There is still more that is good than bad in it, and the McCrone reforms will, despite the doubts expressed by some, lead to a general improvement, if, as there is reason to believe, they are succeeding in attracting higher-quality recruits to the teaching profession. Yet the evidence of failure in many parts of the system is too strong to ignore.

Bill Tilden, the great American tennis champion, had an adage: "Never change a winning game; always change a losing one." Where the system isn't working, we are playing a losing game. Time to change it, surely?