Just how good is Scottish education?

Photo: PA

“Education, education, education.” Remember that one? Yes, Tony Blair at Labour conference in 1996.

It was rhetoric, of course. But what you might call rhetoric with a purpose, designed to reinforce a key policy aim. And it was a long time ago. A lot of political water under the bridge. Yet we all remember that soundbite.

The question is whether education, education, education is an important area of debate in Scotland in 2014?

Even before the creation of the Scottish parliament the education systems differed markedly north and south of the Border. But with Holyrood having control over schools, colleges and universities since 1999 it’s worth looking at devolution’s education record.

A booklet published by the Scottish Conservatives casts an interesting light on this. The Tories persuaded two of Scotland’s most distinguished educationalists to contribute.

Neither Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, nor Keir Bloomer, a former education director, are affiliated to the Tories or members of any political party. Both value their small ‘i’ independence and impartiality, which makes their contributions all the more powerful.

Prof Paterson draws some interesting parallels between the thinking of the former education secretary for England, Michael Gove, and the “left-wing tradition of attachment to ideas”.

The Rt Hon Michael Gove is the former Education Secretary in UK Government Credit: PA

That in itself will cause a sharp intake of breath on many who consider themselves to be left-of-centre politically and in terms of education policy. Prof Paterson also says Mr Gove, a Scot, is “as Scottish in a cultural sense as his worthy rival, the SNP’s Michael Russell”, the education secretary in the Nationalist government.

Mr Bloomer is equally forthright in his contribution and highlights some stark facts about Scottish education which should present challenges to Left, Right and Centre.

Here are some of facts he cites.

First, the Scottish government used to contribute to three international programmes to measure education performance.

It withdrew from two of them, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS).

Mr Bloomer says: “It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Scotland has chosen to make itself less accountable by ceasing to take part in surveys in which it tended to do less well.”

What of the survey Scotland continues to contribute to, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)?

In the three areas it measures - reading, maths, and science - Scotland’s score is “significantly worse” in 2012 than it had been in 2000, Mr Bloomer states.

Credit: PA

He accepts that with the international average score of 500, Scotland is ahead in two areas but argues this is not good enough.

Mr Bloomer says when it responded to the latest figures, the Scottish government compared Scotland to England, saying Scotland was doing better than those south of the Border.

However, his judgement is that there was not much difference north and south of the Border with “neither country doing particularly well”.

“The fact that Scotland’s performance was billed as a success is very significant because it demonstrates the tendency to self-congratulation, which is such a damaging aspect of the culture in which Scottish education operates.”

– Keir Bloomer. Former Director of Education for Clackmannanshire

He also delivers a sobering verdict on the objective of over half a century of education reform in Scotland - improving the education prospects of the disadvantaged.

“Sincere efforts have been made through this long period by teachers and politicians of all parties to make Scottish education fairer. And they have failed.”

– Keir Bloomer. Former Director of Education for Clackmannanshire

I put Mr Bloomer’s points to the minister for education in the Scottish government, Alasdair Allan. He said the main challenge in education was to make sure that “everyone gets the same opportunity and that we close the attainment gap”.

One of the big changes the government had made, Mr Allan told me, was the introduction of the new Curriculum for Excellence, which is being introduced now across Scotland.

Responding to Mr Bloomer, who was one of the architects of the new curriculum, Mr Allan said:

Alasdair Allan speaking to ITV's Political Editor, Peter MacMahon, for Representing Border. Credit: ITV Border

“I’m not self-congratulatory. I do accept that there is an attainment gap there.

I would say there are bigger social and economic problems, not to get away from the responsibility education has to increase equal outcomes. There are big economic and social problems we need to fix in Scotland too.”

– Alasdair Allan, Scottish Government Minister for Learning

Mr Allan was clear the government did not accept the attainment gap “as a fact of life” and was working with the education profession to make sure that gap was closed. One of the most effective ways of doing that, he argued, was “tackling poverty” but also making sure Scotland had a curriculum “fit for the 21st century”.

He said the fact that more Scottish pupils were getting ‘Higher’ qualification exam passes showed progress. The minister added: “That indicates access is improving but I want to see that continue to ensure that gap does not exist in future”.

Credit: PA

In order to clarify the Scottish government’s position further I asked what their comments were on the PISA scores. They say that in 2012 Scotland was ahead of the OECD average in reading and science, and similar to the average in maths. England was ahead in science and recorded similar levels in reading and maths, a spokesman told me.

The Scottish government also say Scotland has not declined statistically in performance in science since 2006 when it became more prominent in the scheme. The Scottish government said it disputed Mr Bloomer’s claim “that the results showed a narrowing of the gap between the most and least successful Scottish students”.

They say the ‘gap’ referred to refers to the difference in attainment between students from advantaged social backgrounds and their peers from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, two sides of the debate on just how good Scottish education is. A debate that is set to continue.

You can see my interviews with Mr Bloomer and Mr Allan on Representing Border.

Read the Conservative document by clicking here.