Prepare for a pilgrimage

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Scotland has a proud education tradition, but it needs 'a bit of renovation'

RICHARD TEESE is a straight-talking Australian academic who could make a big difference to Scot-tish education.

The professor of post-compulsory education and training at the University of Melbourne has just jetted out of Scotland as a member of a four-person group from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which is carrying out a potentially significant, but little-noticed, piece of work on behalf of the Scottish Executive.

Peter Peacock, the former education minister, wanted an impartial look at how Scottish education (mainly schools) was doing when benchmarked against other countries. It was, as some advisers told him, a high-risk strategy.

In an interview with The TESS, Professor Teese gave an outline of the verdict his team will deliver to the executive in September - and the picture, inevitably, is mixed.

"Our approach is not to stand outside the system and say, 'This is how it should be'," he says. "We take the executive's agenda and ask 'What is it you're trying to do?' and respond with critical appraisal. There's no point in being irrelevant."

Professor Teese is the rapporteur to the group which spent its time in Scotland talking to policy-makers and leading educational lights - as well as visiting a number of schools. "We try to look behind the rhetoric and to ask three key questions," he says. "Does the system work well, why does it work well and for whom does it work well? At the same time, we've got to work closely with governments: you don't get anywhere snapping at the heels of government.

"What this means is that it's not enough to explain away how well or how badly some schools are doing by saying, 'There's deprivation out there'.

You can blame parents till the cows come home, but you have to look at the factors which explain why there are strengths and why there are weaknesses - such as the curriculum, the teaching resource, how you train your teachers, and so on."

Professor Teese says the strengths of the Scottish system "stick out". The first is one he suggests can be easily overlooked - comprehensive schooling. His admiration partly reflects disillusion with the "highly segmented" structure in Australia "where we've got flash schools and lots of private money to support them, alongside gov-ernment schools which, frankly, get ripped off".

His team has also been impressed by the efforts to boost early childhood education which he says are necessary to make the comprehensive system work, and the "outstanding dedication" of teachers. The curriculum reforms will be applauded in the report: "they start off with the right question - not just 'what should we teach?' but 'what kind of child do we want?'"

The major plaudits in the report will be reserved for the new induction system of training and mentoring probationer teachers. "That's world-class and a major Scottish innovation," Professor Teese says. "Our report will trumpet that."

Among the queries likely to be posed will be whether there is enough transparency in the way schools are funded, why under-achievement persists and grows from P5 onwards (al-though, Professor Teese says, "that's the case in every country I know of"), and how schools can work in a more integrated way with further education colleges to engage the detached ("it's for the schools to deal with the achievement issues and for colleges to add value").

These will be the qualitative issues in the forthcoming report but it will also contain quantitative analysis based around the performance of pupils in the 2003 Pro-gramme for International Student Assessment study and, if they get the timing right, the 2006 findings which have still to be published.

The results of how well 15-year-olds did in the 2003 PISA survey of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy are frequently cited by ministers as evidence of the health of Scottish schools ("only three other countries performed better" is the official mantra).

Professor Teese and his team agree the PISA data, which in-cludes factors such as school ethos and pupil attitudes, shows "a strong performance", but it should be more accessible: "We will be attempting a qualitative assessment, not just making arid measurements."

His conclusion so far: "Scots are proud of their education tradition - justifiably. But it needs a bit of renovation. You'll certainly get lots of pilgrims coming to Scotland after we publish our report."

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