Scotland's education system has the edge over England's

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Holyrood's reforms seem thoughtful and thorough next to those `quick fixes' south of the border

News that GCSEs are to be scrapped and replaced by an English Baccalaureate Certificate gives observers in Scotland the chance to reflect on the stark differences between the way governments have approached educational reforms on either side of the border.

The return to an end-of-course exam similar to the O level has brought charges of outdated thinking and elitism directed at education secretary Michael Gove. Scots, in the middle of the greatest change to education in generations, can ponder with quiet satisfaction on how they do things better.

Curriculum for Excellence is the result of a national debate in Scotland about how to educate young people for life and work in the 21st century. Consultations asked searching questions about the sort of knowledge, skills and attributes they would need and set out a methodology to develop these capacities.

It was then over to schools and other stakeholders to plan the courses and assessments to make it all happen at classroom level. Teachers were invited to design the detail of the curriculum.

Change in England seems top-down, with schools told what to expect by the media. Mr Gove says he wants to restore academic standards but many educationalists will despair at the rigid focus of the English Baccalaureate on five core subjects.

The thoughtful and thorough approach taken by Holyrood contrasts strikingly with the "quick fix" reforms championed by the Department for Education.

Where CfE is the result of a comprehensive rethink of why and how we educate youngsters, the changes in England are driven by assessment. A change to how pupils are tested will not mean that they are better taught or better educated.

Teachers have for a long time taught for the test and young people think the purpose of learning is to sit exams. Bringing back one terminal exam is unlikely to change that.

With all we know about how children learn, the retreat to a narrow core of academic subjects, tested in schools which are then ranked in a league table, is not forward thinking. To paraphrase Einstein: not everything that is measured is of value and not everything of value can be measured. Think about that when you look at a league table.

Scotland enjoys one examination board which communicates with, and is generally trusted by, teachers. Fairness in exams is protected by a rigorous appeal process based on evidence of previous attainment. The new National 4s and 5s are being positively received. CfE is engaging stakeholders in a bold initiative to transform learning for young people in Scotland.

Robert Karling is rector at Kelvinside Academy, Glasgow.

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