Education – Labour needs a more radical approach

ronnie mcgowanRonnie McGowan has been teaching since 1976. He notes that independent assessment tells us education in Scotland is in decline, and says Labour’s challenge must be radical and reforming, in the spirit of Crosland.


When a confident Nicola Sturgeon delivered the David Hume lecture An Education System for Everyone, in February 2015, her audience were led to believe the reputation of Scottish education was “better than ever”, and the Curriculum for Excellence was being “successfully implemented”.

However, she was in fact just about to remove her education minister, Mike Russell, and then rapidly sideline his anonymous replacement in the light of falling literacy and numeracy standards, assuming control of the education brief herself.

Recently the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation delivered a scathing report about the current state of education reform in Scotland. The OECD came to the conclusion that there were “declining relative and absolute achievement levels” and the particular challenge confronting secondary schools was the “higher incidence of low achievement among secondary pupils than previously”. In truth, Scottish education was worse than ever, and in effect the OECD placed Nicola Sturgeon and her government on ‘special measures’.

The egalitarian orthodoxy of the last thirty years, serving Scottish education well, is today being compromised by a First Minister, who may be in vogue but is out of touch and out of her depth.

The OECD recommend that the Curriculum for Excellence reforms should be re-launched, but with a clearer narrative. In other words there is a lack of communication and understanding of what the reforms are trying to achieve. The Scottish Government has been called to account for its lack of evaluation of the reforms; the OECD found no evaluation procedures in place. The First Minister’s “better than ever” boast lacked authenticity, any form of objective researched evidence and was not based on any of the preliminary findings of the OECD report which she commissioned. These weaknesses must have been apparent when delivering her speech one year ago.

Structural deficiencies within Curriculum for Excellence have resulted in an extraordinary scenario developing in secondary schools. It is now possible to exit compulsory education without having sat a diet of national exams.

Yes, read that sentence again.

This is a far cry from the good education Nicola Sturgeon said she received in Ayrshire during the 1980s, which was instrumental in elevating her to where she is today. The First Minister’s education came courtesy of a Labour administration on Strathclyde Regional Council which skilfully introduced the reforms of the day which were strong on widening choice and universal assessment (the Munn and Dunning reports led to the introduction of Standard Grade). There was evidence that Standard Grade diminished the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. Now the attainment gap is widening, on the First Minister’s watch, denting her credibility on social justice while offering only a legacy of educational failure for this generation of young people in Scotland, especially those in the peripheral housing schemes of our cities.

And it is worth reminding anyone who may question the credentials of the Scottish Labour Party that, around the same time, it was under the stewardship of Dr Malcolm Green that Gaelic medium education was introduced in Strathclyde, first in Bishopbriggs then outwards to communities in Argyll and the islands; the Labour Party in Scotland must plead guilty to implementing a meaningful set of education reforms which were ambitious, aspirational and successful. Not bad for the branch office.

Education is what the Labour Party does best, and it is where it can start to impact on the current political landscape. It was that cautious revolutionary, Anthony Crosland, arguably the most influential voice of modern UK social democracy, who claimed, “education as an investment yields a great return”; and if alive today he might also say that education reform should be the driving force for a better social equity.

The Labour Party has to rediscover a truly radical edge to its education thinking and tackle the downward trend in attainment. Families on those housing schemes are only too aware of the importance of a good education for their children – it is the gateway to successful employment opportunities. What they don’t want is a Curriculum for Mediocrity; their children deserve better than that. But this Holyrood government is falling short on the delivery of a core service which is vital for the development of our young people.

The Labour Party should re-establish the vision, rooted in the best traditions of fairness and ambition, of Assessment for All, where every school pupil has the opportunity to aim at a qualification with currency and upward progression. Today assessment procedures are fraying at the edges, a concern also flagged up by the OECD.

Entrance qualifications to teacher training should be beefed up, especially the minimum qualification in mathematics. This in turn would require examinations to be fit for purpose, with no repeat of the Scottish Qualification Authority debacle in 2015 where reduced pass marks made a lottery of twelve years of education.

The deployment of staff in schools should be reviewed with a detailed look at the funding of promoted posts whose very function should be up for examination. Pupils need boots on the classroom floor not out of the classroom door.

A robust well organised embedded Volunteer Task Force could be set up, fashioned on the big educational initiatives of Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency, introducing enthusiastic and idealistic young students into schools to work alongside teachers and parents with the aim of raising standards in literacy and numeracy. Universities could be trawled for the best and brightest of those willing to devote time and energy as part of their undergraduate course, with the carrot of having fees or loans written off.

But let’s leave the final words to Crosland, echoing down the years. “We must have radical reform or none at all.”

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17 thoughts on “Education – Labour needs a more radical approach

  1. “and in effect the OECD placed Nicola Sturgeon and her government on ‘special measures’.”
    ipse dixit with no basis in fact

    “Curriculum for Excellence reforms should be re-launched, but with a clearer narrative. “
    this was placed entirely in the hands of Education Scotland, the SQA and Local Authorities (mostly Labour controlled). The direction the advice took at School level was entirely in the hands of the Local Authorities
    Local Authorities took on a “Hands off” management style and let individual schools muddle along with little or no support for over 5 years, before belatedly stepping up to the mark when attainment fell – again monitoring and improving standards in schools is the responsibility of Councils.

    “OECD found no evaluation procedures in place. again the remit for monitoring and evaluating this is entirely with the council who then feedback info to the Government

    It is now possible to exit compulsory education without having sat a diet of national exams.
    the SQA took this decision at National 4 level and below

    Education is what the Labour Party does best,
    where a Labour controlled authority is implementing a cut to the education budget of several hundreds of thousands of pounds whilst being in receipt of at least £1 million pounds in additional funding to raise attainment – really is that the best Labour can do?

    The deployment of staff in schools should be reviewed with a detailed look at the funding of promoted posts whose very function should be up for examination. Pupils need boots on the classroom floor not out of the classroom door.
    the employment and deployment of staff and remit for promoted posts are entirley the responsibility of the Councils (mostly Labour controlled for decades) any cuts and poor alterations to remits are entirely laid at the feet of local councils

    since you mentioned the OECD report it is worth noticing that you cherry pick the negatives..the report was commissioned by the SNP government for a start and included the following

    There is a great deal to be positive about in such a review: learners are enthusiastic
    and motivated, teachers are engaged and professional

    levels of academic achievement are above international averages in science and
    reading as measured by PISA, while similar to the average in mathematics.

    Around 8% of Scottish students, higher than the international average, were identified as “resilient” in 2012.

    There are clear upward trends in attainments and positive destinations.

    Education Scotland inspection reports show a minority of schools and a small share
    of early learning centres remain just at or below “satisfactory”. In addition:
    note the word minority

    add in the ONS report that the Scots are the best educated in Europe….

    There are major areas to address….but to tout Labour as the solution when the evidence shows Labour have been instrumental in creating the problem is a long stretch of credibility

  2. “Ronnie McGowan has been teaching since 1976. He notes that independent assessment tells us education in Scotland is in decline, and says Labour’s challenge must be radical and reforming, in the spirit of Crosland.”

    No. That would be a bare faced lie. Independent assessment tells us that Scotland is still a world leader in Education its only the Red Blue and Orange Tories in Scotland who want us to believe it isn’t.

    That’s because in spite of them all supporting the massive cuts to the Scottish budget they want to complain about how the Scottish Government copes with these cuts irrespective of what measures they take.

    Condemned if they do anything A to Z. Condemned if they do nothing. Opposition for opposition sake.

    Westminster causes the problems the Scottish Government does its utmost to mitigate the worst of them and the pro Westminster Uncle Tam shysters in Scotland pretend the SNP are failing Scotland as a result of our disunion limitations.

    The disunion determines how much of a budget the Scottish Government has to play with through Barnett. If the Scottish Government used every penny on a single issue the same shysters would complain it wasn’t enough and demand the SNP find more.

    That’s why they all remain in the political wilderness North of the border and the biggest block vote South of the border doesn’t bother to vote at all.

  3. “Recently the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation delivered a scathing report about the current state of education reform in Scotland”

    This statement is another bare faced lie. The OECD did not distinguish Scotland from the UK in its report. They were scathing about the UKs record not Scotlands. If it wasn’t for Scotlands higher education standards then the OECD would have place the UK far lower down its rankings.

    No wonder you still have to bus up activists from down South to deliver you lying leaflets.

    1. That’s simply not true, Mike, like most of what you post here. The OECD report was commissioned by the Scottish Government and covered the Scottish education system.

      Of course you won’t even apologise. You’ll just move on to the next rant as if you were right all along.

      1. Really? The OECD International body? Or the Civil service Scottish Office branch of the OECD in the UK?

      2. I see the Scotland Office is still publishing tripe under false flags. GERS and OECD. Gonna tell us the author isn’t a UK Civil Servant working from the Scotland Office?

  4. “It is now possible to exit compulsory education without having sat a diet of national exams.

    Yes, read that sentence again.”

    I did. There’s nothing new about it. It has in fact been possible to leave without having sat any exams since Higher Still was introduced in 1999.

    1. Higher Still was a post-compulsory qualification – Standard Grade was available until 2014,your comment is inaccurate.

  5. “First Minister, who may be in vogue but is out of touch and out of her depth.”

    Ronnie ex teacher turned Scottish Labour section Red Tory stooge and careerist is out of his depth sinking to the political abyss that is Davy Jones locker and he dares to have a sneaky jibe cheap shot at the wonderful First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, as the Scottish elections shall demonstrate Mr Chips Ronnie it will be retirement for you as you will have had your Chips when the folks of Scotland batter you at the Scottish elections meanwhile I suggest you try sucking on pickle onion and contemplate what you are going to do when your expenses claims dry up after the Scottish elections.

    ” in the spirit of Crosland”

    What joke this guy Crosland was a silver spoon in your mouth Labour Party Red Tory MP who was a template for the pseudo left wing careerists to follow and establishment to the core through and through see the link below, all the current Labour section Red Tories are living in the past with no vision or new ideas for the future it’s time to breakaway from the Labour Party UK head office and form a completely new Scottish Independent Labour Party and support a Independent Scotland.

    1. I understand the sentiment in calling for a separate Scottish Labour party to support Independence for not only themselves but Scotland from Westminster rule but it would have to be a totally different group from the present Labour party apparatchik in Scotland because none of the present Labour in Scotland acolytes has a single concern for Scotland the State. Little Britains. with no attachment to Scotland at all.
      Any move on their part to actually separate and support Independence would have to be considered as a self serving move of desperation and personal attainment.
      Remember they only support the idea of a UK state in the first place because they are careerists within a UK state institution.
      Remove that career path and they will find a way to make a new career path through an Independent Scotland on the back of people who genuinely believe a country can only best be served by those who live and work within it and are not being directed and controlled by external leadership.

  6. Mike I agree with you that a new party should not be the current Scottish Labour section Red Tories careerists and simply a name change or a rebranding of the current Scottish Labour section Red Tories careerist organisation but the start of a completely new party perhaps all the socialists organisations in Scotland at which there is a new one popping up every 5 minutes should unite and start a new Scottish Independent Labour Party, as it currently exists there is no such thing as a Scottish Labour Party in Wikipedia see the link below the organisation known as the Scottish Labour Party’s does not exist its real name or title is the Scottish Labour section which is a section of the Labour Party UK so there is no copyright on this name and as of this moment the idea for the name of the Scottish Independent Labour Party is my intellectual property therefore as a man of the people I declare that I have given this name of the new Scottish Independent Labour Party as a gift to the folks of Scotland it is now their property to do with as they please so enjoy.

    1. Yep I think that’s the only way to go as far as Labour is concerned. Nobody is going to believe the present cabal are anything other than self serving Tories either side of Independence.

      I think groups like RISE and the Greens will become a more prominent opposition to the SNP in an Indy Scotland.

  7. While I agree that education can be improved in Scotland, I am somewhat surprised that the writer has made no attempt to place the situation in Scotland into any kind of international context. Yet I thought that Labour was an internationalist party. Less than a year ago OECD published a report on public education in Sweden, which was far from impressive. It found that, “The country’s performance in the OECD’s PISA survey has declined over the past decade from around average to significantly below average. No other country taking part in PISA has seen a steeper fall. School discipline has worsened, with students more likely to arrive late for school than in any other OECD country. And despite high job satisfaction, only 5% of lower secondary teachers believe that teaching is a valued profession in society, among the lowest levels across participating countries in a 2013 OECD survey on teaching and learning (TALIS).”

    Denmark did not bother to wait for an OECD inspection, but instead the then government and other parties made their own report into the state of public schools. This was in 2013 and they found that, “the Danish public school is also facing significant challenges. The academic standards – especially in reading and Maths – are not sufficiently high. Danish students perform on the average within the OECD in Danish, Maths and natural sciences when leaving the public school. At the same time we do not improve the potential of the academically weak or academically gifted students. Between 15 and 17 percent of the students leave the public school without sufficient skills in reading and Maths and many students are referred to special education. Besides, Denmark has a small number of academically gifted students relatively.

    So, while Scotland does face challenges, it is by no means alone, and I am pretty sure that other countries beside Denmark and Sweden are facing difficult challenges in providing stimulating and successful learning opportunities for young people. If Labour were to stop just blaming the SNP and recognise that other countries share the same problems it would be a step forward. It would also help Labour to regain some credibility if they tried to learn from the experience of other countries and tried to come up with practical solutions that look forward and not backwards to some allegedly glorious past under Labour rule.

    1. Odd criticism. There are several references to the OECD report which does precisely that.

      And even odder to bang the “don’t blame the people who have been running things for the last nine years” drum. How do the SNP get away with pretending not to be in power despite being the new Scottish establishment? How does someone who recognises failings in our education system, as you clearly do, end up defending the people who have been responsible for it for a decade?

      And as for your final criticism, isn’t this article specifically setting out some practical suggestions for solutions?

      A very odd piece of criticism indeed.

      1. Hi Duncan, you say that the OECD does precisely that, but fail to mention what this “that” is. I am not exempting the SNP from responsibility, but tried to point out that other countries, often with impeccable social democratic credentials have the same or similar problems. This would seem to suggest that the challenges facing schools in Scotland are not “just” the responsibility of the SNP, or whoever is in government. Please note the use and significance of the word just. All too often I get the impressionn that Labour seeks to place all the blame on the SNP. The failings in our education system date back to long before the SNP came to power. The last Labour led government initiated the Curriculum for Excellence, an initiative supported by the SNP when in opposition. This seems to me to be a very important and essential part of moving education forward. The implementation of this curriculum was always the responsibility of local authorities. Any failures in this implementation must be at least in part due to failures on the part of these local authorities, some of which are run by Labour. Of course it would be wrong and unjust to “just” blame local authorities. Just as it would be wrong and unjust to “just” blame the government. Education is too important to became a series of blame games. As regards practical suggestions, do you really think that a volunteer task force is a practical solution to the challenges facing schools? My central point was that we should try and learn from the experiences of other countries. None of which rely on volunteers. Neither the article nor your response makes any attempt to do this. All you want to do, it seems, is to blame the SNP.

        1. Well I didn’t write the piece. And I also didn’t say all the blame should be placed on the SNP. You appeared to say none of the blame should be placed on the SNP. I think we can find common ground in saying that the SNP should take some of the blame as they have been in government for the last decade.

          Most councils in Scotland today are run by coalitions, and all, in my view, are doing the best they can with what is a staggeringly reduced budget which is, since 2007, controlled completely by the Scottish Government. So that is another reason to look more towards Holyrood than town halls and city chambers to find those responsible for our current situation.

          I do agree we should learn from other countries, and I completely agree that education is too important to become a blame game. So is health, so is policing, so is every aspect of our governance.

          But we must be allowed to hold governments to account for their actions and inactions. I hope you agree.

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