Robert Burns wished for the power “to see oursels as others see us”. At the end of last year, we learned how a team of international experts from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development sees the Scottish school system.
And what did it see? Not a system in crisis, but a su More…ccessful system that performs better than most in the OECD. It is a system with strengths, including the community-based comprehensive school. But there are also weaknesses: an “achievement gap” between students from different socio- economic backgrounds, low participation beyond 16, and low attainments among many who stay on.
A review of this kind cannot get everything right. The team is wrong to claim that the achievement gap opens up around Primary 5. It appears - and gets wider - much earlier. The team undervalues colleges’ role in post-16 education, and its specific recommendations for vocational pathways sometimes miss their target.
It recommends abolishing Standard grades because they restrict breadth and innovation, but its proposed regime of universal testing would have the same effect or worse. However, the review’s main contribution is to present three broad challenges for Scottish education.
First, it challenges the Scottish academic tradition. The team agrees that the curriculum and culture of secondary education is unacceptably narrow. It also criticises a tendency to reduce expectations and lower demands on lower-attaining learners, rather than offer more diverse learning and teaching methods.
But the Scottish academic tradition is also a democratic one. Our education has shunned alternative routes and curricula. It has pursued equality by broadening access to the academic mainstream. The review’s analysis suggests we should update this tradition. The mainstream itself needs to incorporate curricular and pedagogical diversity if it is really to be inclusive.
While the review commends the vision of A Curriculum for Excellence, it criticises the way this is being applied, especially the fragmentation of responsibilities and the separation of vocational learning from other developments.
Its second challenge concerns the governance of Scottish education. What Scots may see as a pragmatic, consensual and partnership-based model of governance appears to the review team as a system where responsibilities are confused, innovation is stifled and little real autonomy is given to local authorities and schools. There are no rigorous procedures for sharing the experience of local innovations, and the monitoring of school- leavers’ destinations is inadequate.
The concordat between the Scottish Government and local authorities provides an opportunity to improve governance and to promote the “national learning effort” proposed by the team.
The review’s remit did not cover all learning at ages three to 18 but focused on school education. But Scotland badly needs an internationally informed review which includes all post-compulsory provision.
With school and post-school learning under the same cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, a more co-ordinated approach to post- compulsory learning is possible. This should start with the senior (S4-6) phase of A Curriculum for Excellence. The strategy should cover all 15-18 learning in school, college and work.
Scotland has no concept of upper-secondary completion or graduation. The team’s proposal for a unified but flexible graduation certificate, up to 18, deserves to be taken seriously. It could give meaning to A Curriculum for Excellence beyond S3.
Baccalaureate-type awards do not fit easily within the Scottish context. But if we are serious about reform, this could be an idea whose time has come.
David Raffe is professor of the sociology of education at Edinburgh University.