Let's be bold

25th October 2013 at 01:00

With a year to go until the referendum on independence, it was an impassioned education secretary who addressed last month's Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow. Never one to miss an opportunity, Michael Russell told delegates: "As we move towards next September, let's have the debate properly ... and let's proceed ... with passion, with vision and above all with courage in our own abilities."

It was a rousing conclusion to a speech that would have sat well at last week's SNP conference. With the easy persuasiveness of the seasoned politician, Russell talked of the commonwealth for the common good; the relative stability we are developing in Scottish education; Curriculum for Excellence at the very heart of that success; the support of parents, students and teachers; record exam results; and the journey from good to great.

Not all would agree, but "don't ever become cynical", Canadian educationalist Avis Glaze advised conference-goers. That might have been difficult with delegates from the floor airing acute problems over recruitment of teachers and educational psychologists, and the inadequacies of Glow and resources for the new National qualifications.

Yet there is evidence of real change. New partnerships have been struck between teacher education institutions and schools; higher entry qualifications are being demanded for primary education degrees; highly talented graduates are emerging; and teacher networks and collaboration are expanding, although more patchily, perhaps, than the author of the Teaching Scotland's Future report, Graham Donaldson, would wish. At the next stage are master's-level degrees for teachers and the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, open to all. High-quality people achieving high-quality outcomes for children, as Russell and others put it.

Some things haven't changed, however. The minister was more in tune with his audience as he spoke of the "shaming" link between poverty and low attainment in Scotland, and the inequity in educational outcomes.

There is no easy answer in a country where children from deprived backgrounds can start school 12-18 months behind their peers and leave 10 years later with the gap still there, but a strong case was put by Andy Hargreaves, chair of education at Boston College, Massachusetts, in the US. You cannot raise the attainment bar and narrow the gap at the same time, he argued: you just move the gap up. In Finland, they narrowed the gap first and this raised the bar, he said. For about five years, the overall level stayed the same, but when the bottom had been lifted to a certain point, everything else went up, too.

It was a bold vision, expressed with passion, and one that would take courage to implement. But if all else is failing, perhaps we should consider it in the cold light of day.

Gillian Macdonald is a former editor of TESS.

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