Scott Macnab: Lessons to be learned on education

Scotland has a proud history as a world-leading nation in education. This country was among the first to effectively pioneer schooling for all with the emergence of the first church schools in the Middle Ages. Our ancient universities which emerged towards the end of 15th century are among the oldest in the world. Even after the Act of the Union in 1707, Scottish education, like the judiciary, remained distinctive from the regime elsewhere in the UK.

Getting the best for Scotlands children is the top priority and the government must look at all options.

Education helped Scottish children out-perform their counterparts south of the Border, standing comparison with the best-educated nations in the world. But the world has changed. Developing nations, particularly in the Far East like Singapore, have pumped massive resources into schooling their younger generation to equip them for the challenges of an increasingly technology-based global economy. Meanwhile, Scotland has fallen way behind. The most recent international league tables make grim reading. In maths, Scotland is now ranked 24th out of 34 developed nations, down from 11th in the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) in 2015. In science, we are down to 19th from tenth compared with 2006. Just this week, a damming report into the system in Scotland found that thousands of youngsters are being failed in classrooms, according to Inspector of Education Bill Maxwell. And this is the issue which Nicola Sturgeon has described as her priority – the one which she wants to be “judged on”.

The need for change is clear and pressing and education secretary John Swinney knows it. The “status quo” is not an option, he told education leaders last week. He has set out broad plans to hand greater freedom to schools and their heads. This could see the role of local councils watered down and town halls don’t like it, nor do the teaching unions. The exact structures remain unclear, but schools will be organised into new regional clusters, possibly bringing together top schools and the worst performers in an effort to see best practice replicated across the board. What this means for the 30-odd local education departments in Scotland’s councils and their highly-paid directors of education remains unclear. But at least we finally seem to have someone running education in Scotland who understands the widespread body of global evidence which indicates that improvements come in schools with greater autonomy.

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Such an approach secures a “greater commitment from staff to make necessary change”, Scotland’s independent Commission on School Reform found in a landmark report four years ago. It means that schools see themselves as more directly accountable to those they are most responsible to – families, young people and the local community.

Of course the SNP can’t escape responsibility for the relative slump in standards which has beset Scotland over the past decade. Since the Nationalists came to power, more than 4,000 teachers have been lost from the country’s classrooms. That situation has now steadied with a pledge to keep teacher numbers in line with school rolls, but the impact of ongoing austerity is still taking its toll. Classroom assistants have plummeted and there are growing concerns over the falling number of specialist teachers in areas like additional support for learning. Governments can overhaul systems as often as they like, but without resources to back it up, no meaningful change will follow.

The opposition to change is perhaps understandable since Scottish education has just been through one of the most fundamental overhauls in a generation. The Curriculum for Excellence was supposed to introduce a new type of learning into classrooms. Teaching would become more relevant to everyday life, with youngsters infused with a broader understanding of the subject in hand rather than simply being “taught to the test”. But opponents have branded it “utopian and idealistic”, with concerns that youngsters are spending way too much time involved in classroom discussions rather than knuckling down to their algebra, calculus and atomic elements. Teachers found themselves swamped by hundreds of pages of guidance, undermining any notion that the new regime would give them freedom to teach.

But perhaps the most damning criticism of the new approach, introduced with cross-party support at Holyrood, is that it has coincided with the decline in our global education standing. No clear evidence of a link yet exists, but the Tories are already demanding a review of the system. Much of the new curriculum was inspired by the success of Finland where a similar approach was seen to have prompted a meteoric rise up the international league tables. But the Scandinavian state has been falling in the most recent standings, with studies suggesting its success was in fact built on older, more traditional educational values.

Perhaps a more sustained model of global success has been seen in the Far East Tiger states such as Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Here, a far more traditional approach of soaking up hard facts and information is adopted, with youngsters taught to a heavily-prescribed curriculum culminating in “high stakes” exams at the end of the year. And the school days are long, starting at 7.30-8am and running until as late as 5pm if kids have after-school clubs. Can that be transposed to Scotland – and would we want it? It’s not for John Swinney. He has spoken of the need for a bespoke Scottish solution. He has also pledged not to “academize” Scottish education in the manner of schools in England which have been taken out of town hall control. But the original academies produced dramatic results in driving down the attainment gap in England’s inner cities – exactly the problem Scotland is now wrestling with.

Perhaps Mr Swinney should reflect on the example of the only state school in Scotland outwith council auspices, Glasgow’s Jordanhill School. It regularly tops exam tables and may just provide the homegrown approach which points the way forward to a new dawn in Scottish schooling.