Can Sturgeon really grasp the education thistle?

Can Sturgeon really grasp the education thistle?

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Sunday 8, February, 2015

AT LAST, it looks like Scotland will get the kind of school reform that every pupil deserves

The blunt admission from Scotland's First Minister, that the current school system is not fit for purpose is a major - and very welcome - change of direction from a Government which, hitherto, had turned a blind eye to the greatest weakness in our schools: namely the huge variation in attainment between rich and poor.

Despite all the efforts of our most experienced educationalists - and yes, the Scottish Conservatives- the SNP failed to accept that the way to address this was with radical reform to the whole system. They believed they could tinker with the old system, put on the odd sticking plaster here and there and hope the Curriculum for Excellence would be the panacea for all ills. Things would eventually come right. Well, they haven't and so that is why the First Minister has decided to grasp the thistle.

So what has been the driving force? Undoubtedly, the facts, which have proved, year on year, over several decades now, that the attainment gap is huge. It simply cannot be right that those pupils who come from poorer backgrounds have far less chance of getting good quality passes in national exams in comparison with their counterparts from better off areas. Just 266 pupils across the whole of Scotland in 2013 ended up with three A grades in their Highers. That statistic proves just how deeply entrenched educational inequalities are within the current system.

But there are other facts too; in the international educational measurements like PISA, OECD or TIMMS, Scotland has not been performing as well as other countries. Keir Bloomer, when he was examining the case for school reform, produced hard and fast evidence which showed that in the areas of reading, science and maths, our international PISA performance was worse in 2012 than it had been in 2000, and, just before Christmas, he warned that there was little sign of recovery. In literacy, statistics tell us that around one in six pupils is still functionally illiterate when they leave school and in numeracy the 2013 figure told us that 69% of P4 pupils performed well in numeracy but this fell to only 42% in S2.

Aside from the facts however, other interesting things have been happening. Sir Ian Wood's Commission made plain the need to introduce much greater diversity into education if we are to ensure all children have the opportunity to develop their own talents. His work, which examined in detail what needs to happen in the field of vocational training, has been hugely influential and has put added pressure on the Scottish Government, as has the hot water into which they have got themselves because of their extensive college cuts which happened at the very time when they told us 16-19 education was their top priority. The underlying philosophy of the Wood Commission is that one size fits all does not articulate with the needs of a modern economy when it comes to developing the skills of the workforce. He is right.

In her piece in "Scotland on Sunday", the First Minister was gracious enough to acknowledge that Scotland could learn lessons from other countries and from reforms like the London Challenge. Whilst she says she remains set against the policies of the Gove reforms, she is, in fact, accepting one of their key principles, namely if something different can be proven to work well because it is in the best interests of our pupils and because it is responsive to the demands of parents, then so be it. Surely the most important issue is raising educational standards - for all. Out of date, ideological political warfare should not be the issue as it has been for far too long.

There is however, another major driving force and that is the message which is coming out from local authorities. Time after time, they are telling the Scottish Government that they simply have not got the cash to maintain the current structure of education spending. Last week, we saw a massive turf war between Finance Secretary, John Swinney, and COSLA about how the existing money should be spent. It was an unedifying sight but, party politics aside, it was a clear demonstration why the current system can't work. COSLA is under huge pressure, demonstrated by the fact that four or five local authorities look set to leave it - and, the unthinkable is happening. A few councillors are beginning to question whether or not local authorities are actually the right people to take charge of education.

So the genie is, at last, out of the bottle. School reform is on the agenda whether politicians like it or not, so it is very good to see acceptance of this from the First Minister. One word of advice if she can bear to take it from a Tory: she should get down to the bargain basement of a book shop to find a copy of "Grasping the Thistle" which Mike Russell wrote when he was a free spirit. Something tells me that book might soon be back in demand.


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