Stick to the road on the journey of improvement

4th January 2013 at 00:00
Scottish education is going in the right direction and its ambitions need to continue being driven in 2013

In the third week of the 2007 election campaign I wrote the last of my monthly columns for this magazine (or newspaper as it was then). A couple of weeks later, I was appointed environment minister, bringing to an end my commentating career.

I had no inkling that two-and-a-half years later I would be appointed as education secretary, nor that I would have the privilege of being asked to carry on after the 2011 election.

My predictions for what one of the key issues might be in education after the 2007 election - offering exams online - were, in one regard, wide of the mark.

The way in which pupils receive exam results has of course been transformed since then. The results themselves have also changed in that time and are now the best since records began. But there has been no great demand for online exams.

However, there has been improvement across Scotland's schools and my priority for 2013 is to continue to do all I can to support our pupils, parents, teachers and headteachers.

There is a current debate on whether structural change can play a role in producing improvements in attainment. However, there should be no debate on the simple fact that leadership is the key to such improvement. The hallmark of an excellent school is excellent leadership at every level - from local authority director to dining hall assistant. In education we are all leaders, and encouraging improvements in leadership is probably the single most productive activity we can undertake.

But other thoughts about priorities have come a bit more true. As a country we have considered very seriously the issue of student finance and concluded that education is a societal, not just an individual, good which should be paid for from general taxation. We also know from experience south of the border that doing it any other way disadvantages those who are least likely to progress to university.

In schools, we have taken forward Curriculum for Excellence, driving on - as I hoped we might - the idea of personalisation for each Scottish child.

When I wrote that piece, there was a great deal of rhetoric around, which claimed that the priority should be to "make Scottish education the best in the world". Yet with the introduction of CfE, the ambition might be better put as making the education of every pupil in Scotland the best in the world.

The greatness of our system should be measured in the greatness of our young people and the way in which they can cope with, master and take forward their own personal life choices. Any other measurement runs the risk of skewing the inputs and diminishing the outputs.

The inputs for CfE are delivered by means of teaching of the highest quality. My intention is to continue that process as a long-term journey of improvement in everything we do. Support, encouragement, information and development for staff, pupils and parents is a perpetual task and we need to treat it as such. Part of that activity is to focus on attainment as a measure of progress and in particular the closing of the attainment gap.

So my vision for 2013 is for a school system that carries on with the transformation that CfE has brought. The stabilisation of teacher numbers will help, and so would an agreement on the McCormac report within a difficult set of negotiations affected by the appalling behaviour of Westminster on pensions and the imposition of Tory-Lib Dem austerity cuts on the Scottish budget. But we have come so far that we should not risk any action that could adversely affect taking our ambitions forward in the very best way we can.

For our youngest, the Children's Bill has as its aim the creation of a Scotland which would be the best place in the world to grow up. That reflects the Scottish government's strong commitment to the early years, a commitment which is producing positive improvement on access to such education.

In that regard, my piece in May 2007 also raised the issue of class sizes, and the fact that we now have the lowest P1 sizes in history is a step in the right direction, even if circumstances and finance have conspired to stop us achieving everything we wanted to.

Finally, the completion of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill, hopefully by the summer, will result in the creation of a college sector no longer full of overlap and duplication but instead fully focused on the employment needs of all our young people. Those changes, much needed as many in the sector now realise, will free up resources that were being wasted and make sure that all our attention is on the front line at a time of unacceptable youth unemployment. The Scottish government's unique "Opportunities for All" scheme will also go on contributing to the improvement in positive destinations that we have seen in recent years.

At the end of my article in 2007, I wrote this about the job of education secretary: "Whoever steps into it - from whatever party - over the next few weeks will have a tough assignment." I now know that from personal experience. Nonetheless, I can honestly say that it is one of the most satisfying and inspiring jobs I have ever done. I look forward to the challenges it will bring in the coming year and to meeting and working with many of those who have read - with scepticism, annoyance or perhaps even agreement - my thoughts on education this year and in the past.

Michael Russell is the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.

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