The attainment gap between schools in the wealthiest and most deprived parts of Scotland is so wide that education provision is not “in any meaningful sense equitable”, according to the Commission on School Reform.
Some schools in poorer areas are achieving high standards but the system overall is failing to apply best practice. Its structural uniformity may therefore be a source of weakness as well as strength, the authors of the commission’s interim report have concluded.
Commissioned by the think-tanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for the Scottish Public Policy, the group – including a former education minister, headteachers and council leaders – said more innovation and diversity were needed within schools, as well as more power for heads to take their own decisions.
The report highlighted previous research showing that by S2, pupils in poorer areas were achieving standards roughly half the level of those in the richest. In particular, a disparity in reading and writing skills throughout secondary needed urgent attention. As a result, “opposing systemic change on the basis of preserving equity does not withstand scrutiny”, it said.
The group’s chairman, Keir Bloomer, said Scottish schools were still performing “well” by international standards. About 19 countries or regions scored better than Scotland out of 59 nations that participated, according to OECD data cited in the report. “However, we should not delude ourselves about our position or allow ourselves to be complacent,” he added. “Scotland’s relative international position has slipped although the decline may have been arrested. Scotland was without doubt a world leader but that time has passed, and in order for it to return we must improve.”
Former Labour education minister Peter Peacock, Joan Stringer, principal of Edinburgh Napier University, and David Cameron, a former director of education at East Lothian, are among others on the group.
The commission supports the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) reforms but said an improvement in the basics of reading and writing was a pressing need. Only 40 per cent of children are deemed to be “well established” or faring better than expected by S2.
Education secretary Michael Russell said the OECD rankings showed Scotland had “halted the decline in our international performance” and councils and schools now had to take advantage of the opportunities granted by CfE to make significant progress.