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In November 2011 Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy set up a Commission on School Reform, chaired by Keir Bloomer, to evaluate Scotland’s schools and its young people’s needs.
Its report, By Diverse Means, is now published.
Scotland’s schools have many strengths, but are no longer world-beating. Our performance, among the world’s higher achieving systems, is weaker than when the surveys began. Scottish standards seem not to have declined but other systems are improving faster.
In particular Scotland, with some of Europe’s most disadvantaged areas, fails to tackle the educational consequences of poverty. The social consequences of educational failure are as damaging as the economic, wasted human potential. The correlation between economic circumstances and school performance appears overwhelming and unbreakable.
The Commission asserts that education underpins society and should offer the means by which humanity can tackle today’s great issues. It made a range of recommendations which will command wide support.
It agrees the Curriculum for Excellence should continue to guide Scottish educational developments but warns it will require on-going review and modification.
The report calls for an increased emphasis to be given to employability skills and vocational education, and a greater priority for literacy and numeracy. It says that support for disadvantaged pupils and schools should be better targeted, with support designed so it follows the individual disadvantaged learner though the system.
The commission also suggests talented staff should be encouraged to remain in schools serving disadvantaged areas, with such areas given the resources so t they become attractive places in which to develop a career.
The authors also call for an integrated service for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing support from pre-birth to age three. Such measures to improve children’s life chances and readiness to learn, must be developed the report says.
The commission’s comments are underpinned by the idea the quality of relationships is crucial to success in education and that as a result, children’s personal and social development needs to be prioritised. They add that school learning must be more closely linked to learning in the wider community.
Another call is for steps to be taken to strengthen educational research.
So far, so agreed: but here the controversy starts. If Scottish schools’ performance is good and remarkably consistent but no longer among the world’s best and improvement is slower than elsewhere, what next?
Scottish school education, the report continues, is highly uniform. The best way of reversing disadvantage, the commission suggests, is to increase the autonomy and diversity of individual schools.
It is now well-accepted that top-down reform does not work. The excessively hierarchical and prescriptive culture of Scottish education is rightly criticised by the commission. Meanwhile a blast against bureaucratic micro-management will also be welcomed and teachers will identify with the assertion that there is a compliance agenda – exemplified and reinforced by the sheer bulk of the guidance that has been issued in connection with Curriculum for Excellence. Conformity, uniformity and low attainment are the outcomes.
A combination of light-touch strategic direction from the centre and empowerment and initiative at school level is required. Government and local government, the commission advocates, should encourage and support greater diversity in Scotland’s school system.
To do this, greater autonomy is required at school level, it says, offering as models the Schools of Ambition programme and Glasgow’s specialist schools and North Lanarkshire’s “enhanced comprehensives”.
The commission’s aim is explicit. School autonomy should be greatly extended and as many decisions as practical should be taken at school level.
The report observes that in England, academies and city technology colleges have extensive autonomy; foundation schools rather less; voluntary-aided less again; local authority fully-maintained schools have least.
The possibility at least, of local councils “commissioning” education, not only support services but schools themselves, from private-sector organisations, is mooted in the report.
The commission has missed the target.
The assertion that diversity is the key to improvement is debatable. In an increasingly consumerist culture, the obsession with exam outcomes as the sole significant measure of school quality has skewed judgments of educational success.
It can be argued parental choice has been the reason for the increasing differential outcomes for children in our most disadvantaged areas whose schools have gradually lost many of their most able and ambitious students, and that such choice has already built diversity into the system.
Entrenched economic disadvantage and inequality are not the result of underperforming and bureaucratic education systems.
Among the most successful of contemporary school systems is Finland’s, a much more equal society than Scotland. School autonomy and diversity within such a system supports education to suit local needs. In Scotland such a move would reinforce inequalities and embed existing deprivation.
Amputating the dead-hand of bureaucracy would be a fine move.
But creating schools with widely different educational models and specialisms will accelerate moves to “vocational” schools in the poorest areas and “academic” schools in affluent areas.
It would spell the destruction of the comprehensive system, the original aim (never quite achieved) of parental choice. Along with discussion on commissioning, the diversity model poses the introduction of academies and free schools, a Trojan horse for Gove-style reforms. Best to rethink.

The above article was first published in The Herald on 15 October 2013:

One Comment

  • David Chalmers says:

    “Among the most successful of contemporary school systems is Finland’s, a much more equal society than Scotland. School autonomy and diversity within such a system supports education to suit local needs. In Scotland such a move would reinforce inequalities and embed existing deprivation.”
    What evidence is there to support the assertion that in Scotland autonomy would reinforce inequality rather than support education to meet local needs. Parental choice has certainly acted against the best interest of the comprehensive system, and increased the disadvantage of certain areas, but parental choice of school is a different issue from school autonomy and empowering local communities to decide what type of schooling would suit them best. The dead hand of bureaucracy has certainly not achieved equity, and I can see no reason to expect that it will in the future.
    The key point in the commission’s argument is that schools would not be engineered by the centre, but emerge from the priorities of their communities.

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