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Ontario boost for exams 'tidy up'

The Education Minister returned to Scotland from a visit to Ontario this week determined to "tidy up the examination landscape before Higher".

While Peter Peacock would not be drawn on the fine detail when questioned by The TES Scotland, this was clearly another signal of the Scottish Executive's intent to streamline Standard grade and Intermediate qualifications in line with its pledge following the national education debate to have just one school leaving exam.

Mr Peacock noted that, while schools in Ontario face considerable ongoing assessment to support learning in line with Scotland's Assessment is for Learning programme, they also tested pupils formally at fewer levels.

Youngsters in the Canadian province sit standardised tests at the ages of nine, 12 and 15. But after that, they work towards just one exam - the school leaving diploma which requires them to achieve 30 credits in total.

This means that 30 per cent of leavers fail to get the diploma.

The minister's visit to Ontario is part of the continuing exercise by the Executive to benchmark Scotland's education performance against that of similarly sized countries. Apart from the Canadian provinces, these include Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Flemish region of Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland and New Zealand.

Ontario's Liberal government came to power following what its supporters describe as "the Thatcher years", which they claim had been marked by ill-will and turmoil in education. In one of many "uncanny parallels", as he described them, Mr Peacock found Ontario had now struck a four-year pay deal with teachers and introduced an induction scheme for new teachers.

It presided over a comprehensive school system in which only 4 per cent of pupils attended independent schools.

Mr Peacock also found other similarities with Ontario's approach to leadership development in schools, the focus on literacy (largely fuelled by the province's huge multi-ethnic communities) and the emphasis on keeping pupils out of the NEET group - not in education, employment or training.

The provincial legislature is currently considering a bill that would make it mandatory for pupils leaving school to opt for a future in some kind of learning or employment - not something the Executive is believed to be considering, unless Labour's Liberal Democrat allies in Scotland's ruling coalition take a leaf from their Ontario counterparts.

Of more startling impact, Mr Peacock came across Ontario's initiative to bring about transformational change in schools - the "Turn Around"

programme. This is headed by a team of high-flying school principals, working for the education ministry rather than local government.

They select schools that need to be turned around - but on the basis of statistics about their performance rather than, as in Scotland's Schools of Ambition programme, on the basis of bids submitted by schools.

Having discovered that Ontario schools receive the equivalent of around Pounds 100,000 a year for three years to turn themselves around - the same funding arrangement as in Scotland - Mr Peacock was moved to marvel at the "remarkable parallels."

Not only that, the person in charge of the Turn Around programme was a Scot: Doreen Scott-Dunne from Falkirk, who trained at Jordanhill.

The minister had a chance to see for himself one of the effects of Ontario's efforts in a primary school on the outskirts of Toronto. Three years ago, only 12 per cent of pupils were meeting their expected level of performance. Now the figure is 70 per cent.

Mr Peacock was comforted by the fact that the school had notched up its achievement without narrowing the curriculum, but it had echoed the Scottish emphasis on changing teaching practice and focusing on school improvement.

"Ontario's approach cannot, of course, be replicated elsewhere but much of it has certainly been confirmatory of what we have been doing," Mr Peacock said.

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