Raise our game say MSPs
In a debate on education initiated by his party, Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, prompted a series of arguments among MSPs about what truly "comprehensive" really meant and sparked a remarkable confession by a former minister that comprehensive schools had failed.
Mr Monteith said the solution lay not in the Executive's drive for a more flexible curriculum but "to accentuate the differences between schools and to allow them to play to their strengths, which can be marketed to parents and employers."
He suggested schools could specialise in modern languages, not just European ones but Russian, Arabic and Chinese. The schools could cater for the Muslim community and for export-led businesses. Others could focus on baking and catering, piping, information technology or the media.
Mr Monteith rejected an intervention from Michael Russell, the SNP's education spokesperson, that the present system would allow that, citing the example of Fife where there is a prospect that no languages other than French would be offered.
Cathy Jamieson, the Education Minister, accused Mr Monteith of erecting barriers against innovation which did not exist. "Our education system must and does offer flexibility for local authorities and headteachers. It will allow them to innovate and to implement local solutions to meet local priorities."
Ms Jamieson did accept nonetheless that "we must raise our game and open up schools to new ideas and to different ways of teaching and learning that are built around the needs of the individual child."
Mr Russell said that, while Ms Jamieson "talks a good game," there are huge gaps in what is being delivered. He called for greater concentration on the core basic skills in the early years, which would require radical reform of the 5-14 curriculum and much smaller classes for the youngest pupils.
"This will enable us to build on established core skills to build higher-order skills, thinking skills, to continue to improve exam performance," Mr Russell added.
Ian Jenkins, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, acknowledged that the comprehensive ideal of catering for all equally had not always been achieved. "However, we do not just drop the ideal and move to some nebulous post-comprehensive era in which each school goes its own sweet way without an overarching comprehensive view of the needs of the community or society," he said.
Jackie Baillie, a former Minister, gave an insight into Executive thinking when she said more flexibility and innovation would come with measures such as having teachers working across primary and secondary schools, reforming S1 and S2, encouraging real parental involvement and increasing opportunities for vocational education.
Rhona Brankin, another former minister and college lecturer, admitted that "the comprehensive system has failed young people in the past," particularly those who had been given the opportunity to move on to higher education. One of the main challenges for us is to raise our game in the comprehensive system. Too many youngsters are still falling through the net."
Irene McGugan, of the SNP, supported more diversity, such as 21st century e-schools and backing for parents who want to educate their pupils at home, but within a unified state system.
Nicol Stephen, the Deputy Education Minister, winding up the debate for the Executive, admitted failures such as the numbers of pupils who are not reaching their 5-14 levels and "too many" leaving school with no qualifications (5.7 per cent this year).
But Mr Stephen also pointed to successes, highlighted by the assessment report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which placed Scotland ninth out of 32 countries in science, sixth for reading and fifth for maths.
Murdo Fraser, the Tories' deputy education spokesman, dismissed the comprehensive record. The system worked for children of middle-class, supportive parents and for those who could afford to live near a good school. But pupils living in areas of deprivation "start with a handicap on day one", he said.