Power to the people ..

13th March 2009 at 00:00

It appears to be very difficult to have a debate about education in Scotland.

In 2003, along comes the SNP with promises to deliver class sizes of below 20 for all primary schools. It gets a little attention, and in that year's elections it gets walloped big style, falling from 35 to 27 seats at Holyrood. Then in 2007, the SNP found itself in power and, having moderated its policy to reduce only P1-3 classes, it makes the policy one of its central objectives. Now the national media is fixated with the issue - but not about the possible educational benefits. No, the interest is in the squabbling over whether or not it can be afforded or how long it will take to deliver - if ever. Education comes well after party politicking.

Last month, Scottish think tank Reform Scotland published a paper on what it believed could be a modest way to improve achievement. Focusing on the most disadvantaged pupils, it claimed (and I agree) that, while state schools serve pupils from middle-income families relatively well, those from poorer backgrounds are not so fortunate.

Research shows that schools which have higher percentages of pupils with free school meal entitlement have poorer exam results, more youngsters leaving and not continuing in education, training or work and higher levels of truancy. Reform Scotland argued that, as the evidence shows that some schools with high numbers of such children still get good results, the problem was not that certain types of pupils were destined to fail - but certain schools were destined to fail Scottish pupils. In other words, despite huge increases in the amount of money invested in education over the past decade, the state school system is failing those who most need it.

The wealthy and professional classes have always suspected this and, when possible, have used the power of their wallet or mortgage to choose an independent school or right catchment area.

Yet, last year's report from the OECD established that countries with schools which compete for students are associated with better results - irrespective of background; 60 per cent of students were enrolled in schools whose principals reported competing with two or more schools in the area. Reform Scotland says greater parental choice is a common denominator in countries such as Sweden, Canada and the Netherlands. The think tank suggested that to improve attainment, especially for the most disadvantaged, we need more schools (and teachers) competing for pupils, rather than fewer schools being able to pick and choose the ones they want.

To achieve this, the paper proposed that parents be given an "entitlement", equal to the average sum spent on education by their authority, to buy education at state-funded or any private schools - so long as its fees were not greater than the entitlement.

Its scheme would, for the first two years, be open to parents of pupils who currently receive free school meals, before being rolled out to all. It is intended to encourage state-funded schools to be run independently and to establish more diverse schools, which would increase competition and drive up educational standards across the system.

This revolutionary stuff, aimed at extending opportunity to the poorest and improving social mobility, might have been expected to have provoked some sort of debate - but the idea was filed away in the "too difficult to contemplate" or "my brain hurts" box, together with other educational reports from the past.

Maybe everybody is happy and content with the current system, or maybe it is only money that matters? Or maybe all Scotland's politicians are too attached to education's vested interests to speak up for those who lose out from the system the most?

Brian Monteith thought he was conservative until he met Scottish education trade unionists.

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