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Ministers can find inspiration in a far-flung place ... London

Education is at the heart of much pre-election rhetoric, but the political need to eschew all things English could present a missed opportunity in the battle against underachievement

Education is at the heart of much pre-election rhetoric, but the political need to eschew all things English could present a missed opportunity in the battle against underachievement

Next week's Holyrood election has turned into that rare thing: a contest that could be decided by an educational issue. And it shows. Three of the main parties have been shamelessly pursuing the higher education vote by declaring their opposition to any form of student charge; only the Scottish Conservatives have stuck resolutely to their "common sense" stance of a graduate contribution (although quite how payments coming on stream a few years down the road are supposed to plug a black hole in university finances now remains a mystery).

Education has been centre stage in this campaign in other ways too, partly because it features so prominently among the Scottish National Party's "100 broken promises" on Labour's charge sheet - 19 of the 100 to be precise, from smaller classes to free fruit for pupils pledged in the SNP's 2007 election manifesto.

Despite the sound and fury, however, there remains a political consensus around Scottish education. Whatever the relatively minor differences, this is based on two preoccupations - not alienating teachers and eschewing all things English. It is not just students whose favour is curried.

There are nuances of policy but, essentially, all the parties love the early years, improved standards, better teachers, headteacher autonomy, quality leadership, free higher education (bar the Tories) and vocational pursuits. They agree on other things too: everyone else's sums "do not add up" and spending commitments will be paid for by our old friend, "efficiency savings".

But what of the fundamentals? Scotland, in popular and political mythology, has gone from having "the best education system in the world" to being an educational basket case. Neither was or is true - ask those consigned to junior secondaries in the supposed "golden age". Some schools are inevitably better than others (often by a mile); colleges are also unequal, as are universities. The bottom line, however, is that nobody wants to be at the mercy of a postcode lottery.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study for 2009, published last year, showed that results for reading, maths and science among Scottish 15-year-olds have been slipping closer to the average of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the four surveys it has carried out since 2000.

Scotland was still above the average in each of the three subject areas in 2009 - seven points above in reading, three in maths and 13 in science - which might be deemed a reasonable showing, given that there were 65 school systems in the survey. But, while all countries cannot top the league, the kindliest construct on these figures is that they are official confirmation of an "average" performance by Scottish schools.

It is a truism, of course, that "schools cannot do it all". The OECD's observation in its 2007 study of Scottish schooling - that "who you are is far more important than what school you attend" - haunts us still. Less frequently reported is the next sentence: "But the fact that it DOES matter who you are also says that the school system as a whole is not strong enough to make this not matter."

In other words, investing in schools must be accompanied - or even preceded - by investing in the communities that struggle to sustain them. Many schools work wonders in the face of deprivation, but the connection between these benighted circumstances and educational performance is relentless: there is a 60 per cent attainment gap between children from poorer households and their better-off classmates, according to Save the Children.

This is not just about unemployment: figures published at the time of the UK budget in March showed that, at 8 per cent, Scotland's jobless rate was lower than that in Wales and four of the nine English regions, while it was the same as in Northern Ireland and the East Midlands. The real challenge for schools is to raise pupils' aspirations, expectations and ambitions.

The challenge for politicians, once the electoral dust has settled, is to discard shibboleths and embrace what works (class size is not necessarily in the latter category). It has always surprised me that, while Scottish education ministers like to look for inspiration in far-flung places, they resolutely set their face against seeking solutions from our closest neighbour. While England has not been a happy hunting-ground for evidence- based education policy, occasionally it throws up that rarity - a government initiative which succeeded.

Take the example of the London Challenge, a school improvement programme which came to a premature end last month after eight years. The statistics are startling. In 2003, 80 secondary schools in the city failed to reach the government's floor target of at least 25 per cent of pupils gaining five GCSEs at A*-C; now, only nine secondaries have failed to reach the much tougher floor target of 35 per cent with those qualifications. The programme has been extended to primaries and adopted elsewhere in England.

Professor Dylan Wiliam from London University's Institute of Education points out that London has become the only capital city in the developed world where state schools have higher standards than those in the rest of the country - from having the lowest proportion of pupils with five A*-C GCSEs among the nine English regions to topping the table.

It may not have the pulling power for ministers of Helsinki, Toronto or Wellington, but this stunning example of what worked in London is surely worth a look. Heathrow, anyone?

Neil Munro, TESS managing editor.

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