Politicians should stop tinkering and put some radical ideas in front of voters, says Michael Russell
f you know your Sherlock Holmes, you will remember that the curious thing about the dog in the night was that it did nothing. There is a similarly curious thing taking place at present in the world of Scottish education.
While a furore rages south of the border about choice, innovation and the flexibility that so-called "trust" schools, might provide (a furore that has been going for some time in the United States with regard to what they call "charter" schools), here the groves of educational policy are as quiet as Conan Doyle's fictional canine.
Of course, "schools of ambition" are in the process of spending their very substantial windfalls and, when the issue of educational reform is raised, it is to those places that any enquirer is addressed as well as to the plethora of Scottish Executive projects on leadership, assessment and curriculum change.
Yet these are all, to a greater or lesser degree, exercises in tinkering.
There is, it appears, no one who is prepared to raise their head above the parapet and think (or talk) about the unthinkable - the desirability of finding radical new ways to organise and provide Scottish education.
That is a pity, because discussing the issue would at least allow us to focus on what education should do and consider if we have the best structures to make that happen. There is a need for such topics to be constantly discussed within a nation, so that it can continually be striving for excellence in educational provision. Given the competitive pressures that the world increasingly makes on every country and the consequent individual demands that will be made upon our young people as they take on the responsibilities of adulthood, we should always be asking if we are doing the best we can for them and for our collective future. The moment we show complacency is the moment when decline sets in.
It is undoubtedly true that there are many places in Scotland where schools are achieving so much for their consumers (parents as well as pupils) that no major changes are required. In such places the concept of wider choice driving up standards is and will always be irrelevant. Even where the local school is failing, it often remains the only possible option. Quicker intervention, more dynamic leadership and more appropriate budgets may still be the most practical solutions to such problems.
Yet some new thinking is required. In cities and larger towns in particular, there are still too many young people who are failed by the system and who then take it out on the system. In some establishments, parents are still discouraged from involvement, children are processed not educated and the problems of surrounding communities are used as excuses for failure, not spurs to success.
Many local authorities remain too domineering and have a very wide variation in ceding control of resources to schools, very diverse practice in terms of ensuring the right treatment for professional failure as well as professional development, substantial tension between educational administrators and those they are meant to serve and an emerging pattern of financial difficulties because of an over-reliance on public private partnership (PPP) projects. This all suggests that at least some councils may be increasingly unable to fulfil their key educational functions.
In addition, it is becoming more and more obvious that the really exceptional child - exceptional in any one of a number of fields - is not well served by the existing structures, that excellence is sometimes discounted instead of encouraged and that the muddle-headed insistence that 50 per cent of young people should enter universities is diverting talented youngsters away from careers that would better serve them and society.
All these things indicate that, while Scottish education is not completely broken, it does require a bit of fixing; looking at how these issues are tackled elsewhere might do no harm. If the solution to the problems of achievement, leadership and underperformance being applied in both England and America is to encourage the development of different types of schools, outside the control of local councils or central government, fully funded by the state and required only to meet national standards, we should at least be open-minded enough to consider if such a departure would be useful here.
It is not enough to point out the abject failure of Michael Forsyth's drive to establish self-governing schools a generation ago and say that this proves that Scotland has no desire for change. What we need to do is to put all options on the table, see how they work where they do work and ask if they have any potential for our circumstances. Surprising answers might arise as evinced by the success of education vouchers in that impeccable bastion of social democracy, Sweden.
Would the establishment of "charter" or "foundation" schools within some of our cities raise standards because of the beneficial effect of competition and give children in some of our most depressed and depressing neighbourhoods a better set of educational - and life - opportunities? Could parents successfully set up their own schools where local authorities close down perfectly good and viable rural primaries? Should variety and variation be encouraged in order that new patterns of provision can arise with the sole condition that putative suppliers must offer services at least as good as those delivered by the public sector?
It may be that Scotland will, after considering such matters and hearing the case for change, decide that such an approach is not in keeping with our traditions. But we will never know if those who should be stimulating the debate - the politicians - remain silent like that dog in the night, muted by Scotland's stifling orthodoxies and afraid lest they bark out of tune with their party.
We need more noise in the run-up to next year's elections. Scotland has a right to an informed debate.
Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.