England 9 Scotland 3

7th August 2009 at 01:00

It's official. England has won the World Cup. We woz robbed, say many north of the border. But if Kenneth Wolstenholme were alive, he'd be telling us the academics are on the pitch ". they think it's all over . it is now".

I know it was a few weeks back that Lindsay Paterson penned his article "Scotch the myth that Scot's best" (TESS, July 17), but it was not a here today, gone tomorrow piece - it should be required reading for every MSP over the summer recess.

This nugget sums it up: "The essential point is that attainment in England has improved more than in the other three nations. That is true in primary, as shown last year by the Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). It is true of attainment at GCSE or equivalent. And it is true of progression rates into higher education."

In Timms, England had scored significantly higher than Scotland in maths and science; in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), England remained significantly higher than Scotland despite falling back; and in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), Scotland continues to lag behind England although both have regressed.

For all its own educational ills, England is ahead of Scotland in attainment. OK, it may not be the World Cup, but for a nation like Scotland, that has a grand conceit of its educational reputation, it might as well have been the Sir Stanley Rous trophy.

Professor Paterson is not the only one to raise this spectre of embarrassment. John McLaren, architect of Scottish devolution and an adviser to Labour in the days when it appeared open to ideas, commented in April along the same lines. So did the Edinburgh-based think tank Reform Scotland.

If you look at what happened in educational policy in Scotland post- devolution, you can see it ensured that instead of New Labour we experienced Old Labour. With no need to compete with the Tories in Scotland and with the SNP to the left of Labour, "modernisation" was never a serious prospect. Although there was a one-off introduction of half-a- dozen "specialist" schools, announced by Sam Galbraith in 2000, it was never extended.

In England, central control was used to diversify; in Scotland it was used to, er, centralise. (Another irony of devolution.)

The other policy was to spend, spend, spend. The fact that Scotland pumps in about 25 per cent more on education suggests that either the quantity of money is not significant - or, if it is, our system is a nightmare and only the money is keeping us where we are, but still behind England.

Scottish politicians have defended the universal comprehensive system in Holyrood - denying that, whatever its merits, selection by mortgage made it an anachronism a long time ago. My sons' experience of teachers giving private tutoring to friends made any claims to equality between schools doubly laughable.

The evidence that schools allowed to run themselves to a degree produce persistently better results seems incontestable. It reduces the politicians' role - maybe that's half the battle? According to Professor Paterson, the fact that diversified schools will compete, be they academies, state independent, religious or comprehensive, does not mean the dire consequences many warned of will materialise.

What I like about Professor Paterson is that he is a true academic; open to persuasion on the basis of evidence, to the extent that he can change his outlook. If only there were more academics with open minds, willing to explore what's actually happening in our nearest and bigger neighbour - rather than playing soldiers in fortress Scotland, the last bastion of the failed comprehensive system.

As for open-minded politicians? Well that must surely be a contradiction in terms?

Brian Monteith was once an anti-politician politician at Holyrood.

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