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Education is the means to national success

Anyone who heard me speak during my time as Education Minister will be aware of the focus I had on securing Scotland's place in an increasingly competitive world.

It is clear that pupils emerging from school and university today face competition in a global context. We have an absolute obligation to ensure that Scotland's young people can hold their own with any in the world.

I increasingly sought out international perspectives, because I recognised the potential impacts on our young people of the rapidly changing world we occupy. I often sensed an insularity in much of the debate around Scottish education - a sense that all too often we conducted ourselves entirely (and only) to our own satisfaction.

I regularly met with ministers from other EU nations when in Brussels. I visited Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Canada and Singapore. I wanted to assess how we were doing compared to others. I knew from PISA results that we compared well and still do. But while we ranked highly, I was concerned about whether we were moving forward.

PISA results are only one measure; what was happening on the policy front was more important. Were we heading in the right direction on all fronts? Were other nations delivering better for those young people who became educational casualties in our secondary schools? Had we missed something vital that other nations were addressing?

Through my international contact I knew we were advancing in very sophisticated ways compared to many and we led the world in some innovation, but were all of the fundamentals right - particularly in how we tackled underachievement?

I was clear that, while we had a strongly-performing system, it would be a massive error to believe that others were not investing heavily, developing their policy, strengthening fast and maybe overtaking us. Our strength could be our biggest weakness, if we believed that because we were strong we had no need for change and reform.

I was also clear that virtually every nation in the developed world saw education as its means to national success. At a time when demographic trends meant that sustaining public services and growing stronger economic performance depended on more of our people being socially and economically productive, reducing our underperformance was crucial to allow more of our people to live culturally rich, fulfilling, healthier and well-informed lives.

It was principally for these reasons and because I wanted an external stimulus for sceptics of the need for more change, that I commissioned the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to report on the state of Scottish schooling. But it has exceeded my expectations. This report has handed Scotland a hugely significant instrument with which to explore the policy thinking needed for further development.

The greatest challenge concerns the nature and effect of social disadvantage. To tackle that, we need to further develop curricular changes underway, to give more freedoms to schools to innovate, to address some teaching practice and pupil support. Our system needs to target effort on those we can anticipate will struggle and develop an early and anticipatory approach to learning and pupil support. Along with that, it needs to focus on actions within schools and set aside the false prospectus that it is choice between schools that addresses success.

All this says nothing about leadership; the respective roles of government, councils and schools; teacher training and qualifications; the future of Standard grade - these I hope to return to over coming weeks.

Next week: Tackling disadvantage

Peter Peacock, MSP and former Scottish Education Minister, in the first of five articles on the state of Scottish education.

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