What next for Scotland's educators?

student writing
Image caption The OECD found disadvantaged youngsters have less chance of doing well if they go to school in Scotland

Up until now the word Pisa may have conjured up an image of dodgy masonry in an Italian town.

But as 2010 closed it also established itself in Scotland as the name of a landmark report from the international research body OECD, suggesting the education system here has declined in the past 10 years and is now treading water.

That is despite hefty investment and countless reforms since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

A particular worry is that the OECD found disadvantaged youngsters have less chance of doing well if they go to school in Scotland.

That is a hard message for a country which, for centuries, has enjoyed a reputation for enabling the humblest in the land to go far, courtesy of an exceptional education system.

Earlier in the year, Dirk van Damme, the OECD's head of educational research, said of Scotland: "Too many leave school without qualifications or skills that matter in the labour market."

He invited Scotland to take stock.

"An egalitarian education culture is definitely not enough," Mr van Damme said.

"The egalitarian and optimistic education culture in Scotland may even help to conceal the real issues," he said.

Ministers hope improvements may come from an inquiry into what teachers are taught.

Among the expected recommendations in the Donaldson review, due by the end of 2010 - more instruction on how best to teach children how to read as it is the skill that is the starting point for learning much else at school.

Become livelier

Worth a bet too on the review suggesting trainees spend more time in schools.

Teachers' leaders will be seeking assurances that trainees and the top teachers acting as coaches and cheerleaders are given time and space to focus on development.

The Scottish government is also pinning its hopes on improvement coming from what it has branded the "curriculum for excellence".

Under the radical change, rolled out to all secondary schools in August, teachers and pupils are now free to choose much of what they learn.

And children will find out more information for themselves on the internet, rather than passively taking in information from teacher or a textbook.

Supporters believe lessons will become livelier, more thoughtful and up-to-date.

Others are worried that learning may become more modest and more hit and miss.

Others do not seem to be worried by the changes but feel they might be, just as soon as they work out what the curriculum for excellence is.

A widespread complaint is that the Scottish government and its agencies have consistently described it in vague terms.

Privately, one leading education figure has described it more explicitly.

"The old system was good if you wanted school leavers good at producing widgets.

"The new curriculum will encourage them to think for themselves, the key thing you need in a fast-changing modern world."

School leavers need a good wind behind them.

Image caption Scotland only has one university in the top 100

This year thousands went straight from the school register to the unemployment register.

Some tried to avoid this by staying on at school, a trend that helped boost this year's exam results.

Just under a quarter of fifth-year pupils (age about 16) passed three higher exams - the theoretical minimum for a place at university.

Thousands of unemployed school leavers tried for training places.

Further education colleges struggled to deal with this escalating demand at a time of budget cuts.

Demand for bursaries also exceeded supply, a development linked to hardship among further education students and to some dropping out of courses.

But perhaps because so many in politics and the media went to university and aspire for their children to do the same, attention seemed to centre this year on universities - particularly on the potential return of some form of payment from graduates.

Alternative proposals

The current administration scrapped the charge two years ago but with the release of a Scottish government green paper in December, it is now one option back on the table.

The in-depth analysis this year of the world's universities by Times Higher Education suggested Scotland now has only one - Edinburgh - in the top 100.

But others are not so very much further down the league table, or at least, have individual departments which are high performers.

The umbrella body Universities Scotland is now openly and earnestly appealing for a contribution from future Scottish graduates to allow Scottish universities to keep up with the rest of the world.

It has dismissed hopes that Scots could remain exempt from charges as long as students from the rest of the UK were charged more.

Over the past year some have argued more money could be freed up for the frontline in schools, colleges and universities if less were spent on hierarchies.

Scotland, with a population of five million, has 21 universities and other higher education institutions.

Schools are run by 32 local councils.

The squeeze on public spending has forced many institutions to at least think the unthinkable.

But mergers and structural reforms are usually unpopular and massively disruptive.

And previous mergers haven't always resulted in big savings.

Political parties preparing for elections to the Scottish Parliament in May have a hard task.

Past proposals for education do not appear to have been wholly successful in helping children - and alternative proposals risk offending many adults.

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