`Judge me on closing the attainment gap'
Nicola Sturgeon has put her "neck on the line" by insisting that her record in office should be judged by whether Scotland eliminates the attainment gap that has blighted its education system for decades.
Following a major speech on education, Scotland's first minister reiterated her intention to crack a problem that has confounded several generations of educationalists - not by merely reducing the gap but by closing it altogether.
When asked by TESS how her approach was different from previous attempts to fix the problem, Ms Sturgeon said new ground would be broken in two areas. First, data would be mined from schools on an unprecedented level to establish what worked in the classroom, particularly in the primary sector. Second, parents would be given the chance to become far more involved in their children's schooling than ever before.
Ms Sturgeon delivered her speech at Edinburgh's Wester Hailes Education Centre, where attainment levels have shot up in recent years despite its location in an area of severe deprivation. Her comments were well received by an audience drawn from all corners of the education system. But concerns remain among teaching representatives that some of her proposals could lead to league tables and unnecessary bureaucracy.
"If you're not, as first minister, prepared to put your neck on the line over the education of our children, then what are you prepared [to do]?" Ms Sturgeon said after her speech. "I'm not saying in five years' time it'll be job done - this is an ongoing process - but I want to be judged on it, and I'm going to.be making sure that the information's there to enable people to do that."
New approach to evidence
Ms Sturgeon insisted that the government's pound;100 million Attainment Scotland Fund (see panel, opposite) would herald new approaches to tackling an age-old scourge of education.
She told TESS: "One of the things I feel very strongly about is that schools and parents working much more closely together is a really important part of this - so that's different - and the approach we're going to take to measurements, evidence and information is different."
Ms Sturgeon had earlier talked up a mooted "national performance framework" that would provide better data about what works in primary schools. She said that she was willing to draw ideas from anywhere if they could work in Scotland, recalling recent visits to schools in London and New York. However, she emphasised her scepticism about England's academies and free schools, making links to the well-documented problems of Sweden's education system.
Information obtained through the framework would be published openly, Ms Sturgeon added, and while she insisted that she didn't endorse league tables, she said there would be nothing to stop others compiling them.
Sheila Paton, principal of Wester Hailes described Ms Sturgeon's speech as "inspirational" and backed the idea of the national framework to identify what worked in the classroom.
Return to league tables feared
The response from headteachers' and teachers' leaders was mixed. It was "very important" that the framework did not signal a return to the league tables of old, according to Greg Dempster, general secretary of the school leaders' body AHDS.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that a national testing system would "inevitably lead to teaching to the test and the construction of flawed and misleading league tables - the very approach that Curriculum for Excellence, which the first minister took time to praise today, sought to move away from".
Meanwhile, Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, called for assurances that the focus on primary classrooms would not shift too much attention away from secondary students, who needed support as they prepared to leave school.
Margaret Alcorn, convener of educational leadership body Selmas, said Ms Sturgeon's plans for "attainment advisers" around Scotland to help narrow the attainment gap needed fleshing out, and hoped that they would not add another layer of bureaucracy.
Ms Sturgeon will reveal more about the national improvement framework next month when she sets out a programme for government in the lead-up to the May 2016 Holyrood elections.
`Too important to be ideological about'
Ms Sturgeon has announced that 57 more schools in 14 local authorities will receive funding from the pound;100 million Attainment Scotland Fund to improve literacy, numeracy, and health and well-being for primary school pupils. This takes the number of primaries receiving allocations to more than 300.
Much of the first chunk of funding from the four-year programme has been given to the seven local authorities that have the highest concentrations of pupils living in poverty. The councils are exploring different ways to make the most of the money.
West Dunbartonshire is targeting support for children as they move from nursery to primary and from primary to secondary. The local authority will also recruit more maths specialists to improve teaching in primary schools. Glasgow will take on up to 90 additional teachers, while Dundee's plans include a strong focus on music, drama and dance.
"The Scottish government and each local authority will closely monitor the impact of these actions, so that success can be shared widely," Ms Sturgeon said in her speech. "What matters in improving education is what can be shown to work."
When questioned by TESS, she added: "The education of our children is too important to be ideological about; if something can be shown to work, I'll be happy to consider it."