At a recent Curriculum for Excellence conference, Mike Russell was asked a question underpinned by a problematic presumption. "Given that nothing can be done about the school-leaving regulations and Christmas leavers, how can National 4 and 5 exams be delivered in a half year?"
Why should nothing be done about the school-leaving regulations? Elections to the Scottish Parliament are pending. Mr Russell could appeal to teachers, local government and young voters if he committed to amending the leaving regulations to end the Christmas leaver anomaly.
The original justification for two leaving dates was to avoid flooding the labour market with one deluge of leavers. A greater proportion now stay on for a full fifth year, so that rationale has gone. Such change would also bring Scotland into line with England which, since 1997, has had only one leaving date each year.
Almost half the Scottish school population is obliged to return for a fifth year. Some return enthusiastically for their fifth year, perhaps even a sixth, but the reluctant resent being in school when many of their contemporaries have been allowed to leave. Attendance among Christmas leavers is low. They can (as the questioner indicated) complete few meaningful or certificated courses. Their presence is often irritating to students committed to a year's study.
Alternatively, they have work experience placements arranged for them, useful, but not as useful as starting work itself. Timetables are distorted, either by creating a separate timetable for the leavers, or by incorporating them into courses they will not complete, which will be half-full after their departure.
Schools are staffed on their September census complement but do not require these numbers for the January to summer period. In these days of seeking economies, there's one that makes sense.
We need a simple system by which young people may leave school after 11 years' schooling, seven in primary and four in secondary. At present, children may enrol in primary if their fifth birthday falls between March of a given year and February of the following year. To ensure that a system based on "seven years and four years" did not create inequalities in the actual age at which young people could leave school, the simple rule would require that no pupil should enter primary school before their fifth birthday, a situation much closer to the English model where entry to Primary 1 is based on age at 31 August in the given year.
Mr Russell, we need a simple reform to the leaving date legislation.
Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.