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Peacock's club of nations under fire

Scotland could soon be part of a benchmarking club of similar-sized nations that would allow governments to compare notes on educational policy and results. The move is understood to be part of a number of initiatives being developed as part of the Scottish Executive's education reforms.

Among the countries and regions that Scotland could find itself comparing notes with are: Finland, New Zealand, states in Australia, Canadian provinces and the German LAnder.

At the beginning of this month, Peter Peacock, Education Minister, signalled that part of his approach to raising standards in secondary schools would be a more stringent requirement that the Scottish system should compare its performance against that of other countries.

Both Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, and Brian Boyd, of Strathclyde University's education faculty, urged caution against any moves to create international league tables based on a variety of test results.

Professor Boyd was particularly scathing about the policy of benchmarking.

"To use the technical term, I think it is mince. Benchmarking in terms of attainment is a piece of froth. Education systems are geared to the culture of the nation they serve. To attempt to try to compare attainment across countries is fraught with so much difficulty. It can be misleading and superficial."

However, Mr Peacock said he had no plans to compare Scotland's attainment results with those of other countries. "We have got the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results for that. We need to understand things like: what are the other policy approaches, where are other people investing, how are they doing it?

"Following my visits earlier this year to Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, I am very clear that you can only do what is appropriate at your stage of development within the culture of your country and what works with the grain of that culture."

Scotland was likely to participate in a new initiative of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to extend its current exercise of comparing attainment data to include a comparison of international education policy-making.

On Monday, the start of International Education Week, while representing the UK at part of the EU Council of Education Ministers in Brussels, Mr Peacock held bilateral meetings with Tuula Haatainen, Finland's Education Minister, and Ute Erdsiek-Rave, Education Minister of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Both meetings are expected to result in closer relationships between the governments, with a delegation from the Scottish Executive likely to visit Finland early next year on a fact-finding tour.

Finland has in recent years come top of OECD attainment tables and that success has been attributed to a variety of factors, including a comparatively classless society, mixed-ability classes, a highly inclusive approach to education, high investment in teachers (all teachers must hold a masters degree), no academic selection and very little formal testing.

Commentators note that Finnish itself is an easy language to learn and that from a very early age children read subtitles on television and develop their language skills quickly.

Mr Smith, who represents the EIS at regular meetings of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), warned that his counterparts in other parts of the EU were concerned at EU proposals to develop so-called concrete indicators.

Mr Smith added: "International benchmarking is the same as any publication of league tables. It is one thing to publish that information - the other thing is what do you make of it? Is it just something that makes you feel good or bad about yourself? Or can you draw any inference for your own system from apparently successful countries?

"There ought to be a health warning on them regarding culture and circumstances. Just because it works in one country, don't assume it will work in another."

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