Flexibility is the key to combating disadvantage
Over the summer, I took the chance to delve into those books about education which have been accumulating on my bookshelves, staring out accusingly and demanding to be read or re-read.
The good news is that this reading generally suggested that Scotland is giving attention to factors that reflect well-grounded research evidence and are characteristic of strong education systems around the world.
The first factor is a curriculum that gives broad direction but leaves considerable scope for local interpretation. A second is a commitment to build capacity in the teaching profession, principally through network- based development. And a third is an approach to leadership that is not simply mechanistic or narrowly managerial, but recognises that schools are communities of people.
In each of these areas, Scotland has a good and improving story to tell. Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and the positive response from across the political and professional spheres to Teaching Scotland's Future, the review of teacher education, place Scotland foursquare at the heart of this agenda. Although much remains to be done to translate intention into action, we are definitely on our way.
So far so good, but my reading also reinforced how far we still have to go in addressing the different extents to which children from diverse social backgrounds benefit from their time in school. Of course, this lack of equity reflects powerful social and economic trends, and we are far from unique in this respect. However, we have known for some time that in Scotland social background influences success at school more than in many other successful countries. As the 2007 Organisation for Co-operation and Development report Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland pointed out, "who you are in Scotland matters far more than the school you attend" and "the school system is not strong enough to make this not matter".
HMIE reports have consistently highlighted the disproportionate impact of social background on educational success. The roots of underachievement lie in the earliest stages of life and in experience well beyond the gates of the school. We know that investment in early education can pay huge dividends, as can ensuring that children's nutritional needs are fully met. Good joint working across public services is essential if those at highest risk are to be protected.
Scotland has recognised the importance of these factors, and good pre- school experience and early intervention are already part of the national children's agenda. However, our approach to combating disadvantage once children are at school is still very much "work in progress" compared with best practice elsewhere. Can we learn lessons from other countries? In Finland, there is a much clearer commitment to providing additional support whenever it is needed. About 50 per cent of young people will receive such support over their school careers.
Again, such a philosophy is not new to Scotland. The 1978 HMI progress report on children with learning difficulties sought to establish the principle that having a learning difficulty should not be seen as a syndrome, but as a natural part of learning. The key is not to let a child fall behind to the extent that it becomes harder and harder to keep up. All young people are now entitled not just to be exposed to a broad general education but to progress in their learning at least to the third level. That central tenet of CfE challenges us to look differently at progression and how we support young people's learning.
Can we use our new approaches to curriculum, teacher professionalism and collegiate working to take our response to a new level? How can we ensure that well-grounded evidence about effective practice finds its way into the classroom? Our approach to providing additional support has ebbed and flowed over the years and has too often been vulnerable to financial pressures. Powerful imperatives - timetabling, class organisation, subject structures - have often trumped best practice in providing vital additional support to individual youngsters. We need to use the greater flexibility offered by CfE to ensure that learning difficulties are addressed directly and in time.
One of the more dispiriting experiences in conducting my review of teacher education was the admonition from a union official not to advocate flexibility. This view was presumably born of careworn experience, but was nonetheless depressing because it reflected a mistrust that owes more to the industrial relations of the 1960s than the needs of 21st-century education. The 2007 OECD report was clear about the need for flexibility when it said: "Scotland enters the 21st century burdened with the inequalities and institutional rigidities of the past and facing a future which will entrench these without clear-sighted and vigorous leadership".
Surely the hallmark of a caring profession must be its desire to respond flexibly to the needs of young people as individuals? I firmly believe that the vast majority of Scottish teachers already do just that. However, the confidence of the teaching profession as a whole will only be won if approaches to leadership and governance support and do not exploit such professionalism.
Scotland has the opportunity to change the rules of the game. The biggest danger is that we seek to accommodate longstanding and emerging needs within existing practice and comfort zones. Are we confident and ambitious enough to build a future where the latent strength of the teaching profession can be fully realised? The winners would be those thousands of young people for whom education can and should do so much more.
Graham Donaldson, Professor of education, is the former senior chief inspector of education and author of Teaching Scotland's Future.