Bog-standard comprehensives are fighting back. David Henderson reports from a landmark conference hosted by North Lanarkshire
Scottish ministers are in line with European colleagues in pushing for new forms of comprehensive education to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor.
A more flexible and relevant curriculum is also high up the agenda of European Union countries, according to Brian Boyd, a Strathclyde University researcher and regular contributor to The TES Scotland, who was commissioned by North Lanarkshire to review the international evidence for its reforms.
"The research in recent years into the human brain and how it learns, the nature of intelligences, the importance of health and well-being for effective learning and the place of music and the arts in human endeavours and the potential of information technology, all suggest that traditional schools and the traditional curriculum will not fit the bill for the 21st century," Dr Boyd says.
He argues that specialist schools can still be comprehensive if they are good for all pupils. They have to add value to the work of the whole school and not simply the specialist areas.
"Where a country wishes to move towards specialisation and wants to promote equal access, it will be important to maintain the comprehensive nature of the schools and not to allow selection to cause a two-tier system to emerge," he writes in an unpublished paper.
South of the border, he points out that a plethora of specialist schools, many of which are selective, are "no more successful overall than more traditional comprehensive schools". Initially, they appeared to produce better exam results but the evidence now is "much less impressive".
Dr Boyd, a long-time critic of setting and streaming, again advises that such measures do not improve achievement.
He writes: "Dylan William, an influential figure in the Assessment for Learning movement, has demonstrated that in mathematics pupils in top sets are not well served. They report feelings of stress, a narrowing of teaching methods which leads to boredom and feelings of guilt that others, who they think are as able as they are, are not in the top set."