Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
School of hard knocks: opportunities for all as a political battleground

School of hard knocks: opportunities for all as a political battleground

Ramsay MacDonald, a former teacher, formed the first Labour Government in 1924 with less than a third of the House of Commons. With the support of the Liberals, MacDonald put the ambition to “give every child equality of opportunity in education” as a political priority, and the notion has dominated manifestos of every colour since.

The 2015 General Election is no different, and reducing the attainment gap for Scottish students has been a central part of political posturing in recent weeks. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said the issue would be integral to her leadership when she was sworn in, made an appearance at a London school after saying she had been inspired by results of the ‘London Challenge’ – a project which raised school performance through leadership training. While the photo opportunity may have played into an SNP general election strategy which seeks to give them prominence on the Westminster stage, the subject matter is completely devolved and therefore barely relevant to the election itself.

The other parties have also pushed education inequity up the political agenda. Scottish Labour have committed to reinstating student bursaries and developing a ‘future fund’ for 18 and 19 year olds who don’t go into further or higher education; the Liberal Democrats have called for an expansion of early years education for two year olds; and the Scottish Conservatives have said failing schools should be allowed to become academies.

Former education director Keir Bloomer is one of the architects of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), and says the political focus isn’t new. “We’ve had now a solid fifty years of consensus thinking, with very little result whatsoever,” he tells Holyrood.  

Is there a renewed focus, though? The Scottish Government has announced £100m investment in an Attainment Scotland Fund, which will target improvements over four years. It is initially being focused on local authorities with the biggest concentrations of households in deprived areas. Sturgeon said: “It is important we learn not just from good practice here in Scotland, but also from elsewhere in the UK and overseas, to find ways of working that have the greatest impact. I have been particularly impressed with the results of the London Challenge in transforming school performance in that city and so, while not all of it will be appropriate to Scottish circumstances, we will draw heavily on it in developing our own Attainment Challenge.”
Bloomer says looking at the London Challenge is a positive move. “It suggests to me she is not as convinced as previous education ministers and cabinet secretaries have been that Scottish education is as good as they keep saying it is,” he says.

According to Bloomer, there has been a “climate of self-congratulation” in Scotland for far too long, but he is optimistic the new willingness to look elsewhere for inspiration signals more of a commitment to improvement. The way the last Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores were heralded in 2013 “was extraordinary”, he says.

"If what has happened recently in Scotland means we are moving away from putting on the pom-poms and doing the cheerleader dance then that’s great.”

“Scotland and England scored, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same. The Secretary of State in England condemned it as a catastrophic failure and gave the schools a good lashing. [Former Education Secretary] Mike Russell in Scotland hailed it as another triumph for Caledonia. Same results. That has been now really since the 1980s the pattern of things: south of the border, everything that happens is a disaster and an excuse for bashing the teaching profession, and everything that happens north of the border, even if it’s exactly the same thing, is another demonstration of the superiority of Scottish education. Neither of these standpoints is at all healthy. It’s up to people in England how they tackle that, but if what has happened recently in Scotland means we are moving away from putting on the pom-poms and doing the cheerleader dance then that’s great.”

Where Bloomer is more concerned is in the capacity of politicians to bring about change. “They are very bad at it, because they don’t understand how change works. There is a deep-rooted conviction among politicians if they pass legislation or make policy announcements, something will then happen. They keep on being surprised when it doesn’t,” he says.

CfE, Bloomer says, has made frustratingly slow progress because an appropriate balance between national policy-making and local initiatives has not been struck. “The profession is not as committed as one would like it to be, although it was at the outset, and one of the main reasons for that is the continuing failure to control workload, which is a major issue. It’s not an issue which teachers feel anybody but them takes all that seriously,” he says.
A recent members’ survey by the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) found levels of stress and workload in implementing the new CfE had led to a severe lack of confidence in the organisations designed to support them. Two thirds of teachers responding were not confident in their ability to assess pupils for the new Higher qualifications, while 79 per cent were not satisfied with support from Education Scotland and 82 per cent were not satisfied with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

The new SSTA General Secretary, Seamus Searson, says the union has been “careful about appearing alarmist” and had wanted to contribute positively to the successful implementation of CfE. However, “the survey confirms the view of many secondary school teachers that more time is needed to bring about these important changes,” he says.
Searson says he smiled when he saw Sturgeon in Tower Hamlets because it is where he went to school, taught, and first got involved in trade unionism. He says the improvement work began there before the London Challenge. After the Thatcher government disbanded the London education authority in 1990, it became the most deprived borough in the country, he says. “One of the things we did as unions in the nineties was make Tower Hamlets’ teachers some of the best paid in the country.”

The London Challenge encouraged teachers to lead throughout the school, he says. “Tower Hamlets always saw themselves more as a community. My sister is deputy head in a big school in Tower Hamlets and she says there’s a lot more cooperation between schools. In Scotland you’ve already got some of that already.”

However, what Scotland is lacking, according to Bloomer, is sufficient data, after withdrawing from international studies of achievements PIRLS and TIMSS. “In Scotland we know remarkably little about how our education system is performing. Not just internationally but also nationally. There is no significant reliable information about how we perform in primary school. Virtually none. There is a small sample, a Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy, and all the rest is what is called ‘inspection evidence’, but actually, it’s much more subjective than evidence,” he says.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe



Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top