We are not defined by our neighbours

Gillian Macdonald

We talk about the United Kingdom, and international surveys frequently refer to UK schools, but just how fragmented the education system on these islands is can be seen in this week's News Focus on Wales (pages 10-13).

Why Wales? Because Welsh devolution started at the same time as Scottish devolution, in 1998, and as we consider the way forward for Scottish local authorities there are perhaps lessons to be learnt from the Principality. While Scotland weighs up the possibility of reducing its 32 education authorities to a dozen or so education boards, Wales has already introduced four regional consortia - though these represent an additional layer of government on top of its 22 authorities. Like Scotland, Wales rejected league tables and national standard assessment tasks. But a decade later, teacher assessment has been disparaged for its inconsistency of standards, the country's performance in international league tables has declined and it is reverting to some of its old ways.

So could Scotland, with its increasing devolution of school management to headteachers and accountability for the curriculum and assessment to classroom teachers face a similar future?

Only a fortnight ago, we reported that a third of S2 pupils underperformed in maths, according to the first Scottish Survey in Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN). Last week, we covered teachers' lack of confidence in delivering numeracy, literacy and health and well-being across the curriculum. And this week, we find an academic report revealing how difficult it is for teachers who have been trained in a test-driven system to be left to their own devices and follow their own judgement (page 5).

Do we risk the kind of volte-face that Wales has seen, with national testing of maths and reading and school rankings back on the cards? Already we are seeing how nervous teachers are of abandoning the traditional curriculum structure in favour of the new Curriculum for Excellence model, and many schools appear to be backing away from the pure vision of a broad general education before it has been fully implemented.

Perhaps not. For while Wales is depicted by the critics as defining itself educationally in terms of not doing what England is doing, Scotland has always had its own education system. Scotland has worked for years to develop assessment for learning as a basic tenet of CfE. It has done the "capacity building" that they say was lacking in Wales.

Elsewhere, Northern Ireland is looking to the Republic of Ireland, to Scotland and abroad for ideas. And England, of course, is going its own merry way, stripping away regulation and structures and giving greater autonomy to academies and free schools. There really is very little about our kingdom's education system that can be called "united".

Gillian Macdonald, Editor of the year (business and professional). gillian.macdonald@tess.co.uk.

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Gillian Macdonald

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