Pupil indiscipline in schools costs the taxpayer almost pound;10 million, according to estimates by the Scottish Conservatives.
The party this week launched a major offensive designed to embarrass its political opponents and inject fresh thinking into the debate on educational standards in Scotland. It wants to see extended parental choice, greater autonomy for schools and more effective testing.
At a conference held in Edinburgh on Tuesday, the Tories felt they had tapped into a reservoir of demand for change as calls for improvements were supported by senior figures who would have previously been considered the Conservatives' opponents - Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University; Fred Forrester, former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland; and academic economist and former adviser to Labour ministers, John McLaren.
The most dramatic confession of the day came when Professor Paterson said he and others who would have been regarded as being on the liberal left were "simply wrong" when they opposed the parental choice measures of the UK Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s.
Elizabeth Smith, the Tories' spokesperson on schools and a former teacher at Edinburgh's George Watson's College, made it clear that indiscipline would be its battleground. Buoyed by a YouGov poll which showed that 70 per cent of those asked agreed that persistently disruptive pupils should be removed from mainstream classes and taught separately, she unveiled a plan for piloting "second chance centres (to) rescue classes from unruly pupils".
The Conservatives' figures for the costs of indiscipline are:
- pound;5.6million for the 107,000 school days lost each year when excluded pupils are not at school and "sent home without anything to do";
- pound;1.4m for emergency services called out to deal with violence in schools;
- pound;2.6m for 36,000 days lost because teachers are off as a result of stress-related incidents.
Savings on that total pound;9.6m bill would help pay for the proposed second chance centres, the party argues. But Ms Smith acknowledged that dealing with the hard core of persistent offenders - the 2,000 pupils who are permanently expelled from school or who are excluded five times or more for a lengthy period - would cost over pound;20m. The new centres would, therefore, have to begin on a pilot basis.
The conference heard that these problems were symptomatic of an education system in decline. Annabel Goldie, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, asked: "How can it be that we have doubled spending on education during 10 years of devolution, but standards have remained static? What a wasted opportunity."
She was supported by Mr McLaren and Professor Paterson, who described the performance of Scotland's schools in maths, science and reading as "dismaying," "mediocre" and "dismal".
Mr McLaren pointed out that the average pupil spend in Scotland was between 20 to 30 per cent higher than in England; yet since 1999, there had been no improvement in the 58 per cent of pupils leaving school with five `good' Standard grades at A-C, while England had improved from 44 per cent to 62 per cent on the same measure.
Professor Paterson, one of Scotland's most respected education academics, who sparked a debate in the columns of The TESS in which he argues that English schools are now outperforming those in Scotland, said Scottish schools were performing poorly by comparison with other countries in maths, science and reading, and that the problem had got worse.
He pointed to the evidence which showed that:
- in maths: attainment in P5 has not improved since 1995, and in S2 has returned to 1995 levels after some improvement in 2003;
- in science: attainment in P5 is now lower than in 1995, and in S2 is no better than in 1995;
- in reading: Scotland has stood still since 2001, while many other countries have improved.
Professor Paterson said: "Since the basic material is the same in each country - growing human beings learning fundamental skills - to retreat into a kind of defeatist relativism as a defence against evidence of this kind is simply irrational."
The Conservatives' conference also heard from Swedish experience that allowing parents to set up state-funded independent schools had driven up standards in these schools and in public schools.
The party has not so far committed itself in that direction but it would have been cheered to hear from Mr Forrester, once a bitter opponent of previous Tory government policies on parental choice, national testing and opting out, that "free" secondary schools should spring up funded by the taxpayer and run by parents, magnet schools should be allowed to expand to accommodate parental choice and externally-assessed tests in literacy and numeracy should be administered in P7.