Scottish Education a
year on: Good strategic goals, little understanding how to achieve them
Posted on 21st September 2015 By Professor Sally Brown
Schools and colleges in Scotland have always been a devolved
responsibility, so the issue of further devolution following the
referendum and unexpected Tory election success has not been a
significant concern. Many changes have been underway, of course, in the
Scottish school and college sectors, but these have generally been part
of long term processes.
In some contrast, the universities have been closely associated with the
rest of that sector across the UK, but now are moving further apart
following, for example, the split of the funding councils into separate
organisations for England, Scotland and Wales. There have been
differences in priorities among these councils; for example, for England
there has been Government action, funding council planning and much
public debate on the need for a Teaching Excellence Framework to
complement the Research Excellence Framework in assessing the quality of
higher education. Little public airing of this has appeared in Scotland.
One change following the referendum that has had an impact on education,
however, is the replacement of the First Minister and Cabinet Secretary
for Education. In this new women’s world, the focus has shifted from
Cabinet Secretary to FM with the suggestion that the new FM might be
slightly more willing to admit that all is not well with Scottish
education, and possibly more open to ideas from elsewhere?
Interestingly, preoccupation with the Curriculum for Excellence is much
less evident now than in previous administration.
FM accepts responsibility for future education shortcomings with a
priority for a National Improvement Framework that aims to (a) improve
education standards for all, and (b) close the attainment gap between
poorest and more affluent children (a problem that is experienced and
ill-understood worldwide). Both these aims are important, but very
challenging. Furthermore, achieving the first can make achieving the
second more difficult: higher achievers are likely to raise their
performance more than others, compete better internationally, and so
make closing the gap more difficult
Not much has actually been done as yet beyond announcements about
national assessment. Unfortunately, many have interpreted “national
assessments” as old-style, and disliked, “national testing”. The
assessment should be seen as evaluating the Government’s practical
strategy for reducing the attainment gap, but there is no strategy plan
nor any indication of the need to commission independent developmental
research and evaluation to enable us to understand how and why things
turn out as they do. The FM may be ready to look for lessons from
elsewhere, but a visit to a New York school and to the notably
successful London Challenge, while helping to reduce Scotland’s tendency
for self-congratulation and admit a need for improvement, has to
recognise that achievements comparable with London Challenge need a
demanding and complex development strategy underpinned by research that
moves forward our knowledge of how to change the attainment gap.
Unfortunately, £25m per year is not enough. The initial focus will be on
literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing, but what about rest of the
curriculum? And is there a danger of the broader innovative objectives
of the Curriculum for Excellence being lost?
Emphasis has also been placed on implementing the Young Workforce
strategy following from the Wood Commission’s report and the debate
about vocational education. Although still early days, this strand could
be seen as going better than previous efforts in this field. There are
new curriculum patterns coming into the final three years of secondary
school, Foundation Apprenticeship courses are coming on and government
support for the establishment of Newlands Junior College is evident.
But progress will require more investment in colleges, which were
seriously damaged in the period starting before referendum. Finance cuts
resulted in: contraction of staffing and courses; significantly reduced
opportunities and services for students; and full-time courses for young
students being prioritised at the expense of lifelong learning for older
people. The Public Audit Committee’s report ‘Scotland’s Colleges 2015’
concluded “The reforms to date have had minimal negative impact on
students.” This claim evoked strong challenges from the sector. Compared
with 5 years ago 2014-15 funding had a real terms cut of around 20%,
reductions of 48 % in part-time students and 41 % in students aged 25 or
more. Over last 3 years student numbers fell by more than 100,000 and
staff by almost 7,000.
Implementing the Wood Group recommendations remains the most important
driver of change in colleges’ curricula and it seems to be going well
although it remains to be seen how the creation of vocational facilities
in schools will duplicate what colleges have. The introduction by the
funding body of Outcome Agreements seems to have settled, but there are
still outstanding issues such as widening access. The benefits of
college mergers have yet to be fully realised and the effectiveness of
different mergers appear as a mixed bag.
Accountability: Performance of young people
The Government is keen to bolster the image of Scottish performance
levels and has drawn attention to a case from the last PISA
international test results which looked as if an attainment gap had
reduced, and also to overall increases in numbers of Higher entrants and
passes. Unfortunately, the reduction in this PISA attainment gap was
caused by a reduction of achievement at the top end rather than
improvement among the disadvantaged.
Turning to Highers, the FM has acknowledged the importance of a
grounding in STEM subjects, a particular priority for girls. However,
the Scottish Qualifications Authority record for 2014-15 is not good.
Apart from biology, there has been drop in presentations and passes in
all STEM subjects, particularly computing science. Computing entrants
dropped by 15.4% and passes by 18.1%; for chemistry the figures were
4.6% and 7.3%; for physics 4.2% and 5.1% and for mathematics 3.6% and
3.7%. Unfortunately, girls’ participation over last 8 years is also
down, especially in maths and computing. Problems are not restricted to
STEM subjects. Modern languages comparisons from 2007, when the current
political administration took over, show an increase of enrolments in
Spanish and Chinese of about 2,700, but decreases in the other 6
languages (including Gaelic) totalling 16,800.
Without any independent evaluation, there are severe limits to our
understanding of why things turn out the way they do and no proper
analysis of the causes of reduced enrolments and attainments. Is it a
lack of primary teachers’ science background, limited choice of subjects
on transition from basic education to senior phase, inexperience of the
“new” Curriculum for Excellence courses and procedures, or a lack of
effective support and teaching materials?
Evidence of Government efforts to increase ministerial control: two
First, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) as a Non-Departmental Public
Body is expected to operate at arms-length from the Government and be
responsible for funding teaching and learning provision, research and
other activities in Scotland’s 25 colleges and 19 universities. There is
concern about increasing intervention from Government eroding this
arms-length relationship. Annual Ministerial Letters of Guidance to the
SFC are now seen as more prescriptive and directive than those of
earlier years. This engenders risk to the vitality and creative autonomy
of Scotland’s universities from overly prescriptive, short-term targets
that are set for institutions where timeframes are inevitably much
longer than those of governments. The most successful universities in
world are those that are at arms’ length with their governments.
Secondly, there is the Higher Education (HE) Governance Bill. The
Government’s claim that the university sector is ‘autonomous’ is being
seen by many in HE and the business community as a convenient fiction.
The Bill is regarded as eroding university independence, and expected to
lead to a reclassification of institutions by the UK Office for National
Statistics from “non-profit” to “public bodies”. The implication of this
would be they would no longer be able to hold surpluses or borrow from
private sources (banks/investment companies). There are fears of a loss
of investments and philanthropy up to £500 million. The charitable
status would be under threat unless there is legislation to avoid this.
The Government says this is not the case. It appears convinced that
universities should be governed better, claims that too little attention
is given to staff and students, and is discontented with executive
salaries. But no evidence of these problems is provided.
In general, the proposals set out for an HE Governance Bill are seen by
HE as inappropriate, unnecessary, potentially counter to good governance
and carrying a risk of undermining the current good relations between
Scottish Government and the HE sector.
Sally Brown is chair of the Education Committee of the Royal Society of
Edinburgh. This speech was given to the joint David Hume Institute and
International Public Policy Institute seminar at Strathclyde University
on 17 Sept 2015.
PISA Scores 2016
Scotland trails behind England and Northern
Ireland - recording its worst results in these Pisa rankings. Singapore
came in first across the board.
The small Asian country Singapore focused
relentlessly on education as a way of developing its economy and raising
And from being among the world's poorest,
with a mix of ethnicities, religions and languages, Singapore has
overtaken the wealthiest countries in Europe, North America and Asia to
become the number one in education.
Prof Sing Kong Lee, vice-president of
Nanyang Technological University, which houses Singapore's National
Institute of Education, said a key factor had been the standard of
"Singapore invested heavily in a quality
teaching force - to raise up the prestige and status of teaching and to
attract the best graduates," said Prof Lee.
The country recruits its teachers from the
top 5% of graduates in a system that is highly centralised.
All teachers are trained at the National
Institute of Education, and Prof Lee said this single route ensured
quality control and that all new teachers could "confidently go through
to the classroom".
This had to be a consistent, long-term
approach, sustained over decades, said Prof Lee.
Scotland's scores for maths, reading and
science all declined in the latest set of Programme for International
Student Assessment (Pisa) figures
Bet your house on the teachers. The OECD's
education guru Andreas Schleicher has a catchphrase: "No education
system can be better than the quality of its teachers". And this week's
TIMSS rankings have the same message - success is inseparably linked to
the supply of good quality teachers. Whatever headline-grabbing wheezes
might be deployed by education ministers, it all comes down to investing
Long-term planning in a short-term world. It
might take 10 years before changes in an education system make any
positive difference in global rankings. That's not much of an incentive
for the fleeting life-span of ministerial office. A recent reforming
education minister in Argentina's capital Buenos Aires entered office as
the third minister in 12 days. But the big message from global rankings
is that what is needed is consistency and continuity.
It's not a knockout competition. Education
league tables are based on the proportion of young people reaching some
benchmark of ability. The winners will be those who assume that everyone
should cross that finishing line, including the poorest - and that is a
distinguishing feature of the top Asian systems. They put the best
teachers with the weakest pupils to make sure everyone gets to a basic
standard. In contrast, much of the western approach to education is more
like the Grand National, with the expectation that very few of the
horses starting the race will still be there at the finish. And the
rankings reflect this fundamental difference.
Life Chances are set by the age of 3
New research, which suggests brain tests at the age of
three can predict a child’s life chances, highlights the value of early
Scientists from Kings College London, Duke University in the US
and the University of Otago in New Zealand, found that children with low
cognitive test scores at the age of three are more likely as adults to
become dependent on welfare services or to end up in jail.
The research, which is published in the journal Nature Human
Behaviour, followed more than 1,000 children from the age of three until
they were 38, living in New Zealand. At the age of three, each child in
the study had participated in a 45-minute examination of neurological
signs including intelligence, language and motor skills. The children
were also rated on factors such as frustration tolerance, restlessness
Using publicly held data on health, welfare and criminal justice,
scientists were able to identify how much the children as adults
accessed health and social services and the cost to society.
Researchers found that at the age of 38 one-fifth of the study
population accounted for 81 percent of criminal convictions and 77
percent of fatherless children. This fifth of the group also consumed
three-quarters of drug prescriptions, two-thirds of welfare benefits and
more than half of nights spent in hsopital and cigarettes smoked.
However, the scientists claim that children’s outcomes are not
set at the age of three as their life chances could be altered through
They go on to stress the importance of intervening early and say
the findings should act as an ‘invitation to intervene’.
Although the research followed people in New Zealand, the
scientists believe that the results could apply to other countries.
Professor Terrie Moffitt from Duke University in North California
said, ‘Being able to predict which children will struggle is an
opportunity to intervene in their lives very early to attempt to change
'This study really gives a pretty clear picture of what happens
if you don’t intervene.'
Professor Avshalom Caspi from Kings College London added, ‘There
is a really powerful connection from children’s early beginnings to
where they end up. The purpose of this study is to say these children -
all children - need a lot of resources, and helping them could yield a
remarkable return on investment when they grow up.'
Parents as Teachers
An interview with Mildred Winter the creator of this system can be
downloaded at: Parents as Teachers
A child's brain develops rapidly during the first five
years of life, especially the first three years.
It is a time of rapid cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor
development. For example, a child learns many words starting at around
15–18 months. Rapid language learning continues into the preschool
The child's brain grows as she or he sees, feels, tastes, smells and
hears. Each time the child uses one of the senses, a neural connection
is made in the child's brain. New experiences repeated many times help
make new connections, which shape the way the child thinks, feels,
behaves and learns now and in the future.
A close relationship between the child and the caregiver is the best way
to nourish the child's growing brain. When a caregiver plays with and
sings, speaks, reads or tells a story to the child and nurtures her or
him with healthy food, love and affection, the child's brain grows.
Being healthy, interacting with caregivers and living in a safe and
clean environment can make a big difference in a child's growth,
development and future potential.
Babies need lots of care and affection in the early years. Holding,
cuddling and talking to the child stimulate brain growth and promote
emotional development. Being kept close to the mother and breastfed on
demand provide the infant with a sense of emotional security. The baby
suckles for both nutrition and comfort.
For young children, crying is a way of communicating. Responding to the
child's cry by holding and/or talking soothingly to her or him will help
establish a sense of trust and security.
This kind of early bonding and attachment to the mother, father or other
close caregiver helps a child develop a broad range of abilities to use
and build upon throughout life. These include the ability to:
- be self-confident and have high self-esteem
- have positive social skills
- have successful relationships at later ages
- develop a sense of empathy.
As children's brains develop, so do their emotions, which are real and
powerful. Children may become frustrated if they are unable to do
something or have something they want. They are often frightened of
strangers, new situations or the dark. Children whose reactions are
laughed at, punished or ignored may grow up shy and unable to express
emotions normally. If caregivers are patient and sympathetic when a
child expresses strong emotions, the child is more likely to grow up
happy, secure and well balanced.
Boys and girls have the same physical, mental, emotional
and social needs. Both have the same capacity for learning. Both have
the same need for affection, attention and approval.
Young children can experience excessive stress if they are physically or
emotionally punished, are exposed to violence, are neglected or abused,
or live in families with mental illness, such as depression or substance
abuse. These stresses interfere with the developing brain and can lead
to cognitive, social and emotional delays and behaviour problems in
childhood and later in life.
Children who are physically or mentally punished in anger are more
likely to become violent themselves.
More positive and effective ways to address children's behaviour can
- providing a child with clear explanations about what to do and what
not to do
- responding consistently to certain behaviours
- praising good behaviour.
These responses by parents and other caregivers encourage children so
they become well-adjusted and productive members of the family and
Both parents, as well as other family members, need to be involved in
caring and nurturing the growth, learning and development of children.
They should make both girls and boys feel equally valued as they
encourage them to learn and explore – this is important preparation for
Mothers around the world generally take on the primary role of
addressing their children's rights and needs. They love, feed, console,
teach, play with and care for their children.
A father's role is as vital as the mother's in nurturing and caring for
their children and protecting their rights. A father should make
daughters and sons feel they are equally important. Just like the
mother, the father can help meet their child's needs for love,
affection, approval, encouragement and stimulation. Together, the mother
and father can ensure that the child receives a quality education and
good nutrition and health care.
Are we rearing children fit for the future?
It’s a scary world out there. Climate change, renewed fears of war in
the Middle East, growing political instability across Europe one can’t
help but wonder what the future holds for our children (28th June 2019)
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