What can be done to fix Scottish education?
Mandy Rhodes asks: What can be done about falling literacy and numeracy in Scottish education?
As the mother of a teenage son who has just left school and is in serious party mode ahead of starting university in September, I am looking forward to the moment I stop worrying about his education. I suspect that won’t be any time soon.
It’s a parent’s prerogative to fret. And your child’s education comes somewhere near the top end of the potential for parental meltdown. All too often, children have just one chance at this and when it doesn’t work for them the consequences can be catastrophic for us all.
The opposition parties are right to home in on the SNP Government’s record on education because if there’s one thing that should matter to us all, it’s how we feed our children’s brains and satisfy their potential.
Yet despite the enormity of that task and the diversity of our children, we adopt a one-size-fits-all approach which has consistently failed those at the bottom and currently seems to be set on cruise control for the rest, with a real danger that it not only stalls but goes into reverse.
And falling literacy and numeracy levels in a country with a reputation for verbosity is no stamp of confidence in what is going on in our classrooms.
Kezia Dugdale has managed to land a number of rare blows on the First Minister with her constant questioning of her government’s competency on education.
For the second week in a row at FMQs, Dugdale cited research by Dr James Scott, rhyming off the fact that in the first year of the new exams, the number of candidates studying Level 3/4/5 German, French or Chinese fell by 37 per cent and the number of candidates passing Level 3/4/5 fell by more than 40 per cent.
The figures are shocking. But it is complex and there is undoubtedly confusion, for instance, around candidates and those actually presented. Where Scott’s paper hardly supports Dugdale at all is on the take-up of languages after S4. Indeed, the fall from 2013 to 2014 is no steeper than the fall from 2002 to 2005 when Dugdale’s own party was in charge.
But what is undeniably uncomfortable for the FM is that Scott’s work follows on from a catalogue of other evidence demonstrating Scotland’s record on closing the attainment gap is all but failing.
The simplistic exchange at FMQs did little to clarify what is a difficult and deep-seated issue. And Sturgeon clearly struggled.
But I’ve read Scott’s report and I have to say the big message I took was about what he describes as the laws of unintended consequences; that we ‘do education’ in such a piecemeal way that one policy or initiative hits up against a previous one and that cumulative pile-up causes the car crash.
My feeling is that it is time to rethink the comprehensive system and pay more than lip service to the idea of subsidiarity in education.
That the idea of community partnerships, like the one proposed for St Joseph’s in East Dunbartonshire, or the Jordanhills of the world – of which we have doggedly stuck to just one despite its proven success – or the idea of philanthropy being used to help pay for specialist education for gifted children – which was contained within a Scottish Government-funded research paper but then neatly buried because it didn’t quite suit the prevailing ideology – should all be on the table.
Private schools too have their place.
Schools should have intellectual rigour at their core bolstered by leadership, flexibility, discipline and good guidance.
Testing needs to be robust – how can we identify problems unless we have the data? – and we need to question why we think it is right to be teaching French to some children who can barely even speak English. The more I look at the Education Bill, I feel there is no ‘big education idea’ at all.
And unusually, for me, this is one area of policy where I would probably argue you need to be a parent to fully understand the dilemmas faced in sometimes putting practice before principle.
For the last 20 years there has been an almost unanimous cross-party consensus on the direction of travel for education: that it should be comprehensive, it should be free, and that sustained testing of children is wrong.
But the result is that we have a system of education that reveres mediocrity and that obviates any criticism of the calibre of our teachers and the behaviour of our pupils.
Alex Wood, former head of Wester Hailes Education Centre and now an educationalist and commentator, observes that: “Middle-class families will always find ways to outwit those who seek to spread opportunity wider.”
As a middle-class parent, I find that view both offensive and depressing. Parents, middle class or not, are only ever inspired by the need to do the best for their child. That’s not outwitting a system – it is being a good parent.
Last week, Third Force News, published by the politically influential SCVO, splashed with an image of a schoolgirl holding a hockey stick with a headline that said private schools should be axed. Aside from the crass imagery and the implication that hockey was something only for the educational elite, the online comments were revealing.
One mother, whose story I know to be true because her son was awarded a full bursary to George Heriot’s School from which my own son has just left, wrote: “I am a lone mother of a 12-year-old boy with no parental network and with very serious health conditions.
"My son has been my carer since he was 9 years old. No charity has ever helped us, not Cash for Kids, not Macmillan Cancer, not Pudsey… George Heriot’s School has changed my son’s life.”
Private schools aren’t the problem. In many instances they are dealing with the consequences of the problem.
I’m told it was Winnie Ewing who said, and I paraphrase, that the SNP didn’t want to abolish private schools, it wanted to abolish the need for them. That ambition, to raise the bar for all, should be the real test of an education policy.
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