Closure of Newlands College damns SNP education policy

Closure of Newlands College damns SNP education policy

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Monday 18, February, 2019

THE RECENT CLOSURE of Newlands Junior College on the south side of Glasgow is not only very disheartening but also sends out a strong message about what is wrong with the current education system in Scotland. 

Here was an educational establishment that was a little bit different – not part of the status quo but, instead, an institution that adopted a much more radical approach towards the education of young people who felt disengaged from their own local state schools. Its success was plain for all to see.

Thanks to the imagination of Jim McColl and his dedicated staff, Newlands Junior College prided itself on giving these young people a second chance that, not surprisingly, they grabbed with both hands, learning new skills that were not even on their radar when they were at school. 

On a recent visit to NJC with Ruth Davidson, I was privileged to speak with a dozen or so students for whom the college had meant a new beginning. The curriculum was different and, thanks to the partnerships with local businesses and the City of Glasgow College, these young people had a different focus from many of their peers still in school. They relished the smaller setting and the chance to build strong personal relationships based on trust and a sense of responsibility. One young man told us he had felt included for the first time in his life.

In its 2012 review of Scottish education, the OECD commended many of the attributes of our school system but, in what seems like an increasingly valid observation, it also said that we were very far removed from ensuring that the current system can actually meet our potential. We know too, from international evidence – some of which has recently been presented to Holyrood’s Education Committee – that the best educational standards are delivered when there is diversity within the school system and a high level of autonomy for schools.

That message is designed to encourage us to build an education system around what worksrather than around what’s “aye been” or one particular political ideology. Newlands Junior College worked and that’s why it, too, should be given a second chance.  

For far too long, in Scotland, there have been too many obstacles in the way of educationalists who have the imagination and creativity to do things a bit differently but without compromising the inclusive ethos of Scottish education. On too many occasions, they have felt trapped by a myriad of directives from the education agencies and by the insouciance of local authorities and central government. As such, they feel that both choice and diversity have been constrained, and that there is a mistaken belief that the principle of equity means the same thing as uniformity of provision. 

We do not need any reminders that the demise of Newlands Junior College has come hard on the heels of the closure of the New School in Butterstone, one of the country’s foremost special schools. The New School’s closure was down to very different reasons from the circumstances affecting Newlands Junior College but it is yet more evidence of the difficulties facing anyone in education who wants to do something outwith mainstream schooling. I believe John Swinney recognises that fact. He could see clearly the benefits each could offer (indeed he has been personally very supportive of both of these educational institutions). But, he also has to accept that he is in charge of a system that finds it almost impossible to embrace diversity. Look what happened exactly four years ago this month to the parents of St Joseph’s Primary School in Milngavie when they wanted to opt out of local authority control. It was a case of “the system” coming down on top of them just as is happening with Newlands Junior College. And there are wider ramifications.

This past week, the debate over “contextualised entry” to university has been reignited as a result of the Scottish higher education institutions publishing – for the first time – the lower contextualised entry grades alongside their standard entry requirements; in other words, the typical grades you will be asked for if you are a student from a disadvantaged background compared to the higher grades you will need if you come from a more privileged background. In a Scotsmanarticle, Professor Mathieson, Principal of Edinburgh University, explained why contextualised entry is crucial in terms of widening access and he is right to do so, but he also warned that some students from more privileged backgrounds who are very well qualified, will, inevitably, be squeezed out of the system, and that is the controversial bit. 

Widening access is important but it must not come at the cost of more, well qualified students getting squeezed out of the system, especially when Scotland so badly needs their graduate skills.

Of course, contextualised entry would not be such a hot potato if results in more of our schools were better and that is why there should always be a place for institutions such as Newlands Junior College.

Scotland used to lead the world when it came to education. It can do so again but only if John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon recognise why the likes of Newlands Junior College are struggling to survive. 

Photo courtesy of Newlands Junior College Facebook page.

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