Scotland

Scottish education reforms have 'failed the disadvantaged', says report

  • 4 March 2013
  • From the section Scotland
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Pupil in exam
Education systems in other countries are overtaking Scotland, says the report

Education reforms over 50 years have failed to make a significant improvement to the exam results of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, says a major new report.

An estimated one in five school leavers has few or no qualifications and poor skills in basic literacy and numeracy.

The Commission on School Reform says many changes had an inadequate impact.

Among those are raising the school leaving age, the launch of Standard Grade exams and comprehensive schools.

Responding, Councillor Douglas Chapman, education spokesperson for the umbrella body for local councils, Cosla, said they had a proud record for running schools.

"We are not complacent and we are willing to listen to views on how system can be improved further - but only if they are well thought out.

"Sadly, too many reports like this have in the past treated schools like isolated 'islands of learning', drawing the false conclusion that more school autonomy is the panacea for all the challenges we face.

Top quarter of countries

"Local authorities provide flexibility and autonomy for schools but within an overall framework which supports and challenges schools to continue to improve.

"We also have a track record of encouraging innovation in the teaching profession, a point we made during the McCormac review into teacher employment."

The report, "By Diverse Means: Improving Scottish Education", says that Scotland performs well overall, being consistently in the top quarter of countries for education results.

However, it says the trend has been generally downward and Scotland is being overtaken.

In reading, almost half of the countries overtaking Scotland are developing countries where standards would be expected to be lower.

Scotland has not lacked good ideas for reform, it says, but implementation of them has often been weak and slow.

No school in a disadvantaged area has ever matched the performance of a school in a more affluent area, it reveals.

"It is worth noting that this is not true of other countries," says the report.

It highlights rapid improvement in countries such as Poland, Singapore, England and Ontario in Canada.

The report suggests that many children begin to fall behind in early secondary, saying: "This has been apparent for at least 40 years. Yet decisive action has never been taken."

It indicates that educational failure is "a personal disaster" for those concerned but has implications for the rest of society too, as this failure is often linked to unemployment, ill-health and possible involvement in crime.

Weakest track records

"Many who could have made a positive contribution to society become, instead, a drain on its resources," say the commission.

Douglas Chapman
Mr Chapman says councils have a track record of encouraging innovation

Since most countries now effectively operate as a global economic unit, competition has increased and countries with the weakest track records for educating its young people are likely to fall behind, raising the prospect of declining living standards and possible social unrest, the report argues.

Calling for better education research, it says some reforms have been weak because they have been based on "informed hunches, wishful thinking and ideology".

The report suggests that reforms have taken a tentative hold because not enough time has been spent sharing objectives with teachers and winning the hearts and minds of the broader public.

A further cause it highlights is that the principle of compromise has sometimes gone too far "to placate opposition, to lessen teacher workload to circumvent practical obstacles".

The launch of Standard Grades was so delayed that the first candidates were the children of the children for whom it was originally intended.

And the new Curriculum for Excellence has taken a decade to reach the point of students sitting related new exams.

The foundation level of the Standard Grade exam is cited as an example of an ineffectual reform because it has been widely perceived to be of little value.

Ambassadors and guides

The commission's report suggests parents may be unaware of disappointing statistics as surveys indicate they are "highly satisfied" with Scotland's schools.

Suggesting ways to help future reforms take hold, the commission calls for schools that are enthusiastic about changes to be allowed to go ahead more quickly and become ambassadors and guides for schools adopting reforms at a slower pace.

It also calls for senior school staff to be free to take most decisions as they see fit rather than having to refer decisions back to distant council offices.

The reports says this should ensure more decisions are tailored to the needs of the particular children in the school instead of conforming to an across-the-board policy.

Keir Bloomer, a former council director of education who chaired the commission, indicated that secondary head teachers could, for example, decide to delay an upgrade of computers in order to pay for a teacher to ensure no child finishes first year without sound skills in reading and writing.

Mr Bloomer also suggested that the secondary school system might be more dynamic if it were less uniform.

The commission would like schools to have the freedom to specialise in areas like vocational skills or arts or science.

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