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An education multiple-choice test
Columnist, Scotland on Sunday
Filed 28 Oct 06
This article, which was originally
published in Scotland on Sunday on 22nd October 2006,
is reproduced on Land-Care with the kind permission
of the author and the newspaper
JACK McConnell has always been interested
in education. The trouble is he has not had much of interest to
say about it. He has talked about its central importance to the
future of the nation, its role in promoting equality, the need for
higher spending to make schools better, their contribution to the
economy, the virtues of the comprehensive system, and so on. He
has rarely challenged received wisdom. Apart from paying teachers
more, it would be hard to say exactly what his administration has
Until now. Over the past few weeks the First
Minister has begun to question seriously some of the basic presumptions
that underpin Scotland's education system - and this has meant confronting
some harsh truths. Such as: why are there so many failing schools?
Why are standards of literacy and numeracy so low for so many pupils?
Why are schools turning out young people who seem to be equipped
for no trade or profession? Why do schools neglect the interests
of some of their brightest pupils? And why do parents and school
boards come second to the over-riding policies of local councils?
In pursuit of answers, Mr McConnell has begun to explore some ideas
that sound very similar to those that Tony Blair has been pursuing
in England, where, unlike Scotland, there has been a revolution
in education. It is not generally appreciated just how far the Blair
reforms have gone.
Almost 2,800 secondary schools, some 80%
of the total, are now either specialist schools, city academies
or city technology colleges. This contrasts with Scotland, where
the system remains more or less intact, and there are just 20 "schools
of ambition", with extra resources being ploughed into improving
Now, however, it seems Mr McConnell has
begun to realise that merely brushing up the old model may not be
enough to keep Scotland ahead of the game. Earlier this year, in
a keynote address, he hinted at big changes to come. Last month
he began a series of speeches in which he promised wholesale reform.
He admitted to the Fabian Society in Edinburgh that there had been
a "tale of under-achievement" in some schools that held
Scots youngsters back, and he promised "revolutionary"
Then he talked about the need for "skills
academies" so that pupils could learn a trade rather than struggling
with academic courses which were excluding them. Finally, he admitted
that too many schools in Scotland were failing their brightest pupils
and preventing them achieving their full potential. Last week he
was in America visiting a school near Washington which has tailored
its curriculum to helping high achievers - with remarkable results.
From all of this it would appear that Mr
McConnell is finally ready to indulge some lateral thinking in education
and explore ways in which schools can be tailored to the needs of
their pupils, rather than a one-size-fits-all system. When he returns,
I suggest he looks at some models rather closer to home. He might,
for instance, want to go and talk to the parents and children of
Roy Bridge Primary School in Inverness-shire, whose fate will be
determined by Highland Council this week.
Here, a truly imaginative, forward-looking
scheme by the local community to build its children a school designed
for their own needs, rather than amalgamating it with a bigger one
three miles away, hangs in the balance. Roy Bridge is just a village,
but it is growing. Its primary school has suffered from the kind
of neglect all too familiar in Scotland, and now needs to close,
be rebuilt, or - as the council would prefer - merged into a bigger
one. The parents are suggesting something more radical. They want
to build a school themselves through a Public Community Partnership,
a version of the government's much-favoured private finance initiative.
The money would be borrowed from the bank, and the building leased
back to the council, which would end up owning it. What is being
proposed, in effect, is a commercial partnership between a community
and its local authority, but with the parents rather than the council
deciding on the shape of school they want for their children. And
they believe they could do it for a million pounds less than the
Which way to go? The tried, the tested and
the all too predictable model of unchallenging conformity? Or the
radical experiment that could galvanise one small community? The
immediate decision lies with the Highland Council this Thursday.
But the bigger question is whether Mr McConnell is prepared to turn
words into action and throw his weight behind this kind of pathfinder
enterprise. It will determine whether power lies with old ideology
or new thinking.
This article: http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=1563232006