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Diversity is the key to improving Scottish education – so say Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy.
Their Commission on School Reform examined Scottish schooling.  It included many of the best thinkers and practitioners in Scottish schools and public service, including Judith McClure, Peter Peacock, Keir Bloomer and Frank Lennon.
The commission argues that our schools are too uniform and lack diversity.  The result has been very consistent, but not exceptional, education across the board.  The uniformity has likely levelled-down overall achievement.
To become world-beating again, the report argues for increasing individual school autonomy and loosening the grip of central authorities.  Decisions which can competently be taken at a school level should be taken there without higher interference.  Creativity and excellence will follow.
It sounds attractive.  Everyone in Scottish schools knows of the stultifying effect of a risk-averse and statistic-obsessed managerial culture.  Letting a hundred flowers bloom should warm Scottish teachers’ hearts.
Yet, the commission’s analysis is not entirely convincing.
Bureaucratic cultures do stifle initiative and energy but the assertion that our schools are uniform and lack diversity is a perceptual failure which perhaps points to larger issues.
Comprehensives in Scotland’s many one-secondary towns  (genuinely comprehensive in intake) and city secondaries are widely different.  Within the cities, schools in depressed peripheral estates and schools, a mile apart, in leafy suburbs, are light years apart.  The ethos of denominational and non-denominational schools is also distinct.
Perhaps most fundamentally, the private sector and parental choice, with varying pressures from different parental cohorts, impact decisively on all schools.  The market paradigm has migrated into the comprehensive sector and has precisely encouraged ‘diversity’.
Whether that diversity has been for the best is highly questionable.  An increasingly vocational curriculum operates, principally in schools serving the poorest areas, while, schools in the private sector move from SQA exams to ‘more academic’ English qualifications.  Yet the commission calls for an increased emphasis on employability skills.
The commission notes Scotland’s continuing failure to address the educational consequences of poverty.  Support for disadvantaged pupils and schools should be more effectively targeted and talented teachers encouraged to commit to schools in the most disadvantaged areas.  These are, however, precisely the policies that are likely to arouse animosity among staff and parents in the leafy-suburban schools and be ignored by vote-hungry politicians.
Similarly, the report confirms that relationships are crucial to educational success and the focus should be on young people’s personal and social development.  However, these are the very values which schools jettison in the relentless pursuit of attainment statistics.   It’s that pressure which makes every headteacher ask ‘What actions will best enhance exam results – and most effectively attract more parents of high attaining young people?’
Almost all of the report’s individual recommendations make sound pragmatic sense although, disappointingly, it contained no unambiguous commitment to comprehensive education.  In aggregate, however, they do not answer the big questions: why the children of the poor are increasingly concentrated in a few schools and why education has come to be perceived as another commodity on the market place.
One commission member, David Cameron, recently asked: “How do we inhabit a neo-liberal society committed to inequality?”
The implication of the question was that David Cameron liked neither the ‘neo-liberalism’ nor the ‘inequality’ but had no clear sense of how to challenge either.  Unfortunately, the commission’s report, with its genuflection to neo-liberal ‘diversity’, provides no answer to his frustration.
Diversity is no panacea.  After all, within a few short years of the ‘hundred flowers’ initiative, the Cultural Revolution returned Maoist China to rigid orthodoxy.  A brief blast of diversity would be quickly followed by market pressures to emulate the traditional academic values of Gove & Co.

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 11 March 2013:

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