After such an indecisive election, where education was scarcely mentioned in any depth, perhaps it is time for politicians to rethink their education policies, jettison old dogma and ask themselves the difficult question: do we require radical changes if we are really to become a country with a world-class educational system?
Some, of course, will argue that we already are and no changes are required. May I draw their attention to the recent paper, How Good Are Scottish Schools?, produced for the Policy Institute by James Stanfield of Newcastle University. It demolishes such views and opinions and concludes that our education system is very mediocre, despite the large amounts of money thrown at it in recent years by the Scottish Executive. Talk to teachers, as they recount some of their experiences, to hear what it is really like in some schools.
In addition, ask yourself why, if our state education is so good, does the number of children attending independent schools continue to rise, even as the school population falls away dramatically? Why are parents making such personal and financial sacrifices for their children if things are so wonderful in the state system?
And why is it that one in five young adults under the age of 25 are in no form of education, employment or training, at a cost to our society of pound;1.7 billion each year? Indeed, 35,000 young Scots have no qualifications of any sort. Is this what a world-class education system achieves?
The halcyon days of Scottish education are long over. Routes to improvement, in my view, could be found through self-governing state schools, a school voucher scheme and more varied types of secondary school, as well as encouraging the growth of additional independent schools.
It is time to set schools free. This means giving heads, staff and parent councils the responsibility of really running their schools, choosing a suitable curriculum, and setting standards of behaviour and dress and giving schools the ability to expel pupils who do not conform. The rights of the majority must not be affected by the behaviour of the few.
The previous First Minister, like the former Prime Minister, belatedly appreciated the failings of the present comprehensive arrangements and looked at alternatives such as skills academies. In England, we now have city technology colleges and trust schools and, from Stanfield's research paper, we see that England is raising its standards unlike Scotland. This is despite Scotland spending almost pound;6,000 annually per state secondary pupil not much short of the annual fees at independent schools.
Many of these ideas will no doubt raise objections and be argued against by those who have shaped education policy for the past 30 years. To change direction now would mean having to admit their past mistakes. Perhaps the election of a new First Minister and executive, however, might allow politicians of all parties to have a radical rethink of their previous policies, which have failed so many.
and formerly headteacher of
St Columba's School