One-size education does not fit all

18th June 2010 at 01:00
In an increasingly competitive global world well-performing education systems are critically important for economic growth and social progress.

In an increasingly competitive global world, where more and more countries transform into knowledge societies, well-performing education systems which are capable of mobilising all talents are critically important for economic growth and social progress.

Like many other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, Scotland has expanded its education system to provide skilled labour to a growing economy and to shore up social mobility and social cohesion. It continues to modernise and improve its schooling by addressing achievement gaps and by introducing an ambitious curriculum. In line with the Scottish Enlightenment heritage, schooling and learning still get a lot of support throughout society. Educational aspiration is a strong driver of individual and social investment in the future.

But is the Scottish approach, with all its "educational optimism", addressing the issues that matter? And is it well-equipped to cope with the challenges of a rapidly-changing global context?

Having visited Scotland in 2007 and examined its schooling system, the OECD team, of which I was a member, was pleased to see it performing so well. The experts were impressed by the levels of attainment, the well- designed system of comprehensive schooling, the commitment of local government, school leaders, staff, families and stakeholders to high- quality education, and the breadth and depth of reform.

Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) data witness generally high levels of educational performance which compare well with other countries. Very few countries have invested so heavily in their teaching force, nor have they introduced a curricular reform comparable in breadth, ambition and inclusiveness to Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

But the review also pointed to some serious challenges, mainly equity in educational performance. Despite low variation in learning outcomes between schools, Scotland's system is suffering from an achievement gap between rich and poor.

The achievement gap opens up in P5 and continues to widen throughout S1-4. Not all Scottish youngsters enjoy equitable access to or take similar profit from the fine school system. The review asked: how can Scotland extend the benefits of good schooling to a wider range of children and young people?

An egalitarian education culture is definitely not enough. The egalitarian and optimistic education culture in Scotland may even help to conceal the real issues.

The price of the achievement gap in terms of labour market opportunities and social cohesion is high: the employment gap between highest and lowest-qualified workers in Scotland is at the higher end. Too many youngsters leave school without qualifications or skills that matter in the labour market.

Many choose not to continue in upper secondary education and find it difficult to comprehend its relevance. Too many 15 to 19-year-olds are not in education, employment or training. Weaker students may find an easy exit from the formal education system at age 15 or 16, and schools are not committed enough to really take responsibility for these young people.

The good thing in Scottish schools is that the strong egalitarian culture does not offer an excuse to trade off equity and quality. A high standard is expected from all schools, and they generally expect high levels of performance and aspiration of students.

The question is whether the system provides enough suitable opportunities for its young people to make ambitious and relevant choices. The review made a case to enrich CfE with attractive vocational study tracks, not separate from more academic tracks but by introducing more diversified and integrated approaches in schools.

Diverse students need diversified educational opportunities and learning environments. The review team called for more flexibility, diversification and innovation. As a consequence, schools should get more management autonomy in staffing and curriculum from local authorities in exchange for innovation plans on which they can be held accountable.

The praiseworthy legacy of the comprehensive school should not lead to a "one-size-fits-all" approach. Uniformity is not the way to offer the best opportunities to students with different backgrounds, talents, abilities and aspirations.

A lot has been done since the publication of the OECD report. Many people discussed its main findings and some recommendations found their way into policy and practice. It is too early to assess whether the main findings should be updated or to ascertain that things have changed significantly. A new Government has introduced its own approach and education policy objectives. Scottish society has evolved, for example, in terms of immigration, which is a comparatively new challenge for Scottish schools.

Also, the international environment has changed. The economic, employment and social crisis which has hit the industrialised world since 2008 has only increased the individual and social cost of lack of skills. Public budgets are under stress and political strategies to compensate for deficiencies by increased funding fall short. This will make things more urgent and difficult to resolve.

Like other countries, Scotland should not wait until the bad times are over and hope for the best, but should take every opportunity to tackle its educational challenges. The price of not doing so will only increase.

Dirk van Damme is the keynote speaker at The TESS-supported conference, Raising Our Game: Secondary Schooling in Scotland, being held next Thursday at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh

Dirk van Damme is head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD.

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