Ideas paper: Improving Scottish education


SCOTTISH education is held in high regard. Whether it is Professor Jerome Bruner’s praise of the vision of Curriculum for Excellence or the 250 educationists from 20 countries at the recent Storyline visiting schools in Glasgow, it is difficult to overstate the esteem that the professionalism, care and hard-work of our schools attracts.

However, the biggest challenge facing us is how to make our society less unequal and to ensure that our education system plays a major part in achieving this aim. We know it can be done. We know that because other countries, notably Finland, have used education along with other social policies, to turn the economy and the wellbeing of its people around.

Politicians need to look and to listen; to teachers, other educational staff, parents and, above all, pupils. They need to stop looking for quick fixes and build on the successes of our own educational establishments, from pre-5 to secondary, and they need to have all of the elements of education working in partnership, including colleges and universities.

The focus of education must be to “educate the whole child”…not just the part of the child which is measurable by an exam.

The relentless pursuit of ‘raising attainment’ isn’t simply debilitating for schools but it is misguided philosophically. Achievement should be our goal; attainment is a sub-set of achievement.

Educational underachievement as a consequence of poverty is a blight on our system. Recent research from Professor Pam Sammons of Oxford University suggests that if two children, one advantaged, one disadvantaged, are at the same level aged 10, the disadvantaged child is 60% less likely to get to university than the advantaged child. So, we cannot conclude that one is less able than the other, but that our current approach to schooling favours one over the other.

Practically, we can address this.

First, reduce the number of exams. An exit exam is all that is needed. At the same time, radically review our current approach to exams. Do our present exams tell you if young people are successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens? Pencil-and-paper, timed exams are simply too crude and too superficial to do so.

Second, increase funding to early years education, to allow them to be community-based, working with family learning and giving young people a secure grounding for learning through creativity, collaborative learning and structured play. Already many early years establishments are developing thinking skills, nurturing children to be empathetic and giving them a love of learning. In the words of the late Maya Angelou, they are “Loving children to understanding”.

Third, recognise that schools are not islands, and as well as working within their geographical communities, they should be Communities of Schools, with primaries, secondaries and ASN schools working together, sharing practice and expertise, building on prior learning and sharing pedagogical approaches. Schools working with the most disadvantaged pupils should always be well-staffed and the best, most committed and creative teachers should be incentivised to work there. The work of many schools in disadvantaged areas demonstrates what can be done even under difficult circumstances.

Finally, we need to outlaw practices which discriminate against disadvantaged children. Setting by attainment is discriminatory. So-called “bottom sets” contain disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged pupils, mainly boys. Not only is there no research evidence anywhere in the world to support the practice of setting, but it is almost certainly part of the reason behind Professor Sammons’ findings and contributes to the underachievement of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We need to build on the outstanding practice widely distributed across Scotland and support our schools improve achievement for all our young people.

Picture courtesy of Richard Lee