School Reform on everyone’s agenda

Last week Ross Martin, policy director of  think tank Scottish Centre for Public Policy wrote a wonderful piece in the Scotsman which started discussion on so many of the ‘wicked issues’ we face today in education reform:-

OUR higher and further education institutions must work harder to serve Scotland’s needs and help youngsters fulfil their potential

Higher education institutions don’t exist as islands. Our universities can no longer function in ivory tower isolation, they must play a full and active part in the society which they seek to serve. In Scotland, this means that they must serve the whole community, which currently they are not doing. Trailing well behind their English and Welsh counterparts, Scotland’s universities attract just over a quarter of their intake from the poorest sections of society, compared with a third south of the Border. They must do better.

Another indicator that all is not well is the drop-out rate from Scottish universities, running at nearly one in ten in some places. Again, the retention rate is lower than that of universities elsewhere in the UK, and signals the need for change. Whether these two indicators are directly linked is a discussion for another time, but given the scale of the economic challenge which Scotland faces in an increasingly competitive world, it is essential that we maximise the life chances for every single one of us.

I grew up in the Wester Hailes area on the fringes – economically and socially as well as geographically – of Edinburgh, where the community’s own slogan was “Full of Potential”. We were. The individual promise in each and every one of us was recognised by our excellent school leadership. Sadly now a shadow of its former self, at least in terms of pupil numbers, the ground-breaking local high school, the Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC), specialised in identifying the most positive path which each pupil could take as their first steps towards adult life.

Whether it was becoming a world renowned jazz musician, a leading expert in IT, an excellent tradesman, a teacher, an engineer, a newspaper editor, a hairdresser or even a politician, the fantastic staff at the WHEC identified the early signs and then pointed each of us in the right direction. For some that meant moving on to college to learn or develop a skill, others were better suited to full-time employment and for a few of us, given the limited places available in universities in the 1980s, the decision was which wonderful campus looked most attractive.

Nowadays, given the access and drop-out statistics of Scottish universities can it be said that they are doing all they can to best serve their single, common community of interest – meaning Scotland?

As access to Scotland’s universities has risen dramatically, at least in terms of numbers, how have they fared in serving the national interest? What contribution are they making to the development of Scotland’s best, most precious resource: its people?

Whether you believe that our universities are performing well or not, one thing is certain, with no additional evidence required: They can do better, especially on the point of widening access to the whole community.

The Scottish Government’s forthcoming post-16 education bill may offer an opportunity for a strong change in participation rates from those with poorer backgrounds, backed up by fiscal penalties, akin to the carrot-and-stick finance mechanism used to secure the council tax freeze.

But what more can be done to ensure educational excellence for all? What lessons can be learned from other parts of the education system – or the rest of the public services? And are there wider implications for Scottish society to getting it right with our universities?

First, there are too many individual institutions. The sector is surely ripe for rationalisation. Just as the number of Scotland’s schools has come under pressure, with a rebalancing into larger units, so is further education experiencing significant change, with mergers and amalgamations sweeping the sector. Scotland’s universities should similarly restructure, leading to single, or at least fewer, institutions in each of our city regions, cutting down on bureaucracy and pushing more resources into lecture theatres and labs.

The shared service agenda which is currently exercising the best minds of Scottish local government and the NHS offers another opportunity for higher and further education institutional collaboration. At Forth Valley College, for example, which is struggling to secure the financing for a rebuild of its main site in Falkirk, what thought has been given to a formal link-up with Stirling University, bringing the buildings on site or not, but creating a larger, more efficient institution with an even stronger sense of community?

A move to larger, more powerful institutions would enable a vast improvement in the education environment, especially if local authorities were willing to work alongside universities in creating inspiring, attractive campuses. In Glasgow, for example, imagine the entire area between Queen Street Station and the cathedral, bounded by the Merchant City along the south and the M8 to the north, being pedestrianised and redesigned as a city centre campus, linking Strathclyde and Caledonian universities and the colleges (which themselves are merging).

The other obvious restructuring which is required is the relationship between universities and Scotland’s schools. Six years of school study followed by four years of core degree time could easily, and more effectively by reduced. If the four-year degree is reduced to three, alongside better integration of content and assessment between the two tiers, then up to 25 per cent of cost could be saved. This cash could then be redirected into ensuring the continuation of free tuition, a political priority of the Scottish Government.

Equally, if we are really to start a realistic assessment of demand for public services, rather than simply turning the supply on even further, then a mature debate about the randomly-chosen 50 per cent target for entrants must be begun. A more targeted approach would surely focus more on a wider range of positive destinations for school leavers, getting a better, more sustainable balance between further and higher education, employment and training.

For some school leavers, none of these traditional pathways excite, but the chance to show, develop and demonstrate an entrepreneurial flair is exactly what is required. The ESpark incubator set up in Glasgow by Willie Haughey and Tom Hunter is a model the rest of the country should consider. Scotland’s small business birth and growth rate is also bottom of the league and initiatives like this are much needed.

For those who don’t find any of these routes attractive, or are just not ready to decide, how about a national civilian service, offering opportunities across the whole range of public service provision? In caring for our elderly, developing a new dynamism in healthcare or helping to redesign public services our nation’s young people could play an energetic and effective role.

As Scotland debates its constitutional destiny we must leave no stone unturned in fighting the scourge of youth unemployment. Whether it is opening access to our universities, increasing the opportunities for training, or providing the support for our young people to take those all-important first steps on a career path, we all have a job to do.

My own response to his article can be found here:-

Lessons to learn           

Published on Saturday 7 April 2012 00:00

It was great to read Ross  Martin’s input on educational change (Perspective, 5 April).

His working group looking at the schools review will no doubt come up with some interesting findings which will help at this crucial time for education,  the economy and society as a whole.

History educators had a very successful conference in Edinburgh last November which brought together universities, colleges and schools in meaningful discussion around learning and teaching.

This sort of discussion needs to happen in every curriculum area on a regular basis if we are to achieve the best outcomes for individuals and the country.

Mr Martin’s commendation of the Wester Hailes Education Centre model is timely and welcome. It is the sort of education many of the advocates of enterprise education championed during the Determined to  Succeed initiative.

That policy lasted for two governments but has now been  “embedded”.

We must be careful that  “embedding” educational change does not simply mean  moving on to the next initiative or project.

Ross Martin alludes to this and highlights that there is still an issue for young people to get on to the right pathways to success.

Perhaps a review of enterprise education and a fresh drive in this area is required at a national level.

What better way to invest in our most precious resource – young people and those who educate them?

Neil McLennan

Scottish Association of Teachers of History

Enterprise Practitioners’ Association


Whilst backing Martin in every way I would also encourage all those involved in education and with an interest in its progress to engage with his Commission on School Reform.

Commission on School Reform Call for Written Evidence

We live in an increasingly competitive global economy.  At the same time, our society faces a range of difficult challenges.  Education is universally regarded as having a vital role to play in equipping Scotland to face these challenges.

Opinions differ on how well Scottish education performs.  However, no one can doubt that it needs to improve – and keep on improving – if it is to meet the country’s present and future needs.


The Commission on School Reform was set up by the think tanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy to consider whether the school system in Scotland is meeting the present and future needs of young people and to make specific recommendations as to how things might be improved or areas that require further enquiry.


Commission Members

  • Keir Bloomer (Chair – former President of the Association of Directors of Education and member of the group that wrote Curriculum for Excellence)
  • John Barnett (Former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate and former Parent Council Chairman)
  • David Cameron (Former President of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland)
  • Claire Hervey (Geography Teacher, Falkirk High School)
  • Hamira Khan (Chief Executive of the Scottish Youth Parliament)
  • Frank Lennon (Head of Dunblane High School)
  • Judith McClure (Former Head of St George’s School in Edinburgh; Convener of Scotland-China Education Network)
  • Anne Marie McGovern (Head of St Benedict’s Primary School, Easterhouse)
  • Linda McKay (Principal of Forth Valley College)
  • Cllr Paul McLennan (SNP leader of East Lothian Council)
  • Peter Peacock (Former Minister for Education and Labour MSP)
  • Morag Pendry (Education Development Manager at the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland)
  • Cllr Graham Simpson (Conservative Councillor in South Lanarkshire)
  • Professor Dame Joan Stringer (Principal of Edinburgh Napier University)
  • Angus Tulloch (Investment Manager)


  • To form a fair and objective view of Scotland’s educational performance compared with what is provided elsewhere;
  • To consider the challenges that Scottish education is likely to face in the next 50 years and how likely it is to meet those challenges;
  • To identify any problems with the current school system in Scotland and try to analyse the root causes of them;
  • To develop proposals that will enable young people, whatever, their background, to fulfil their potential and meet the unprecedented challenges of the modern world.

In meeting its objectives, the Commission will want to consider key themes such as standards within Scottish education – how we compare with other countries as well as whether our system will meet the future needs of society and the economy; diversity within the Scottish school system; the governance structures of schools and support provided; how quality is assured and the incentives or obstacles to improve; funding; and broader social factors which affect education.

In the course of its work, the Commission will look at the school systems of other comparable countries to establish how their achievements and structures compare with our own.  Further, it will consider whether the measures used in international comparisons provide a good guide to the ability of different systems to equip young people for life in the twenty first century.


Submitting Written Evidence

To inform the work of the Commission, you are invited to offer your views on any matters that are relevant to the remit.  Evidence from individuals as well as from organisations and professional bodies is welcome.  It would be helpful if respondents considered the following questions:

  1. What do you think are the      main challenges facing Scottish schools and how are these best addressed?
  2. Is Scottish education      sufficiently ambitious?  What should      it do to ensure that it meets future challenges and remains      internationally competitive?
  3. What are the outcomes for      children and young people that we should hold as being most important?

Evidence should arrive by no later than Monday 30th April 2012.

Responses should be no more than six sides of A4 in length and be sent, wherever possible, electronically and in Microsoft Word format to

Hard copy responses may be sent to: Reform Scotland, 7-9 North St David Street, Edinburgh EH2 1AW.

The following BBC Clip may also be of interest to anyone keen to respond:-


About neilsgleeeclub

Educator, writer, speaker and leader. Views are my own and not those of the organisations I work for or represent.
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