Let's branch out and embrace change instead of resisting it

15th March 2013 at 00:00
The report from the Commission on School Reform could well lead to meaningful developments

The reputation of Scottish education goes before it. Unfortunately, that reputation has changed from one of being an innovative world leader to being stereotyped as conservative and resistant to change. It is a deep irony when only Conservatives are offering radical ideas and former radicals are conservatively resisting change.

It is, therefore, refreshing to find in the final report of the Commission on School Reform, jointly established by thinktanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, a degree of consensus across the political divide that might at last open up the debate enough for meaningful changes to be permitted to happen.

I use the word "permitted" consciously, for Scottish public education has for a long time suffered from "producer capture" that - together with the self-interest of political parties in keeping the teaching unions and local authorities on side - has meant consumers have been emasculated unless they could afford to take their children elsewhere.

At its most extreme, that means paying for education by choosing the independent sector or buying a house near a highly rated state school. Either option is unavailable to many. Unfortunately, trying to cater for the diverse needs of children by allowing schools to be diverse and flexible has generally met with stony-faced opposition, despite all the contradictions of the current set-up.

While it is recognised that a small number of schools can specialise in, say, sports or music to the benefit of pupils with such strengths, the idea that other schools could officially specialise in hot-housing maths, sciences or technical trades provokes paroxysms of outrage.

So when you have a report whose authors, including an SNP and Tory councillor and a former Labour education minister, agree unanimously that greater diversity between schools should be openly encouraged through devolving more powers and responsibilities - it is like breathing in the pure air of the Alps after living in a sulphurous steel town.

As with all such unanimous reports, I am sure there were some who wished to go further. Nevertheless, the important point is that if anything is to be achieved in the Scottish Parliament, it will require a political agreement across parties that hitherto has been impossible to find. If the commission's report augurs in a new consensus, then we may eventually see the wheels of reform starting to turn.

Not yet, not tomorrow, but after the 2016 Holyrood elections we may look back on last week as when change truly began to start.

Brian Monteith is a former Conservative MSP.

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