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Taking on the Hydra

I recently attended the launch of an important new research and development centre at the University of Glasgow called the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change. It aims to bring together insights from practice, research and policy to help find ways to combat the impact of disadvantage.

This is a complex problem to tackle. There is no sharp break point between being advantaged and being disadvantaged. Disadvantage has many layers and takes different forms. While its roots lie outside the school, there is more that we in education can and should do.

Research evidence, bolstered by results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), shows that many countries that perform well for most young people nevertheless fail to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged. Scotland is no exception; indeed, we seem to have particularly entrenched issues to address.

Much of the story of the past 40 years of international educational reform has been about noble attempts to address inequity with only limited success. What happens in classrooms has proved resistant to change. Countries across the world have introduced more efficient management processes, organisational and structural reforms, market-type strategies and high-stakes testing, as well as strengthening inspection.

Evidence from the more successful of these reforms suggests that high aspirations, a clear sense of direction, high-quality and well-supported teachers, distributive leadership, partnerships and networking, close monitoring of progress and intelligent forms of accountability can all make a significant contribution to school improvement. These elements are increasingly features of current educational reform in Scotland.

Curriculum for Excellence sets a challenging agenda and the actions taken in pursuit of the Teaching Scotland's Future review aim to revitalise teaching as a profession. Our increased focus on the early years, together with recent announcements about building inter-school partnerships, improving data analysis and establishing a Scottish College for Educational Leadership, also reflect current insights into reform.

However, we must continue to learn from research and practice, both national and international. Disadvantage is hydra-headed and successful reform has proved elusive. The contribution of universities and of places like the Robert Owen Centre can and should be significant.

Scotland's future success will be intimately bound up in our ability to learn and act. That means bridging gaps between practice, research and policy. In that way we might just ensure that education is contributing directly to breaking the debilitating effects of disadvantage on our young people's futures.

Graham Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of the review Teaching Scotland's Future.

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