Friday, January 05, 2007

The education year in Scotland

Since it is the season of glad tidings and good cheer, let us start with one of the year's highlights - the bold claim that one part of Scotland has virtually wiped out illiteracy.

Five years ago 28% of youngsters starting secondary education in the disadvantaged area of West Dunbartonshire were functionally illiterate.

Two years later only 8% fell into this category. And further instruction in secondary school resulted in all but one per cent - those with severe dyslexia or learning difficulties - being functionally literate by the age of 16.

That means they go out into the world with a reading age of at least nine and a half, able to perform tasks like filling in forms and reading popular newspapers.

Their chances of jobs, college places and a stable lifestyle are greatly enhanced.

The council says success came from teaching reading and writing in a simpler, more structured way.

Phonics, the sounds that letters make, play an earlier and more important role than they do in many other reading schemes.

The children sound out letters to identify unknown words and quickly become independent readers.

Lack of basic skills

The national picture is, despite improvements, less rosy. One in five adults report problems with the three Rs.
HM Inspectorate of Education said in a report: "It's clearly unacceptable that any youngster is going through at least 11 years of education and coming out at the end without an adequate level of literacy and numeracy.
"We need to address that with greater vigour."

The inspectors link poor basic skills to the high numbers of Scots "not in education employment or training", the so-called Neet group.

No other country in the developed world has a higher proportion walking into a void when they exit the school gate for the last time.

One in eight has no job or place in a training scheme, college or university. And the true figure is likely to be higher still as there is no record of what happens to many.

The figures make unpalatable reading for a country which has for centuries enjoyed a reputation around the world for educational excellence.

On this theme, the CBI north of the border said businesses were having to set up what are effectively remedial classes for new recruits.

It claimed: "Schools are failing to engage meaningfully with too many young people, leaving them far short of being work-ready, often with few qualifications at all or little to show for the years spent in the classroom."

In response to these criticisms, many voices in education say too much is expected of schools, that it is what happens at home that stops youngsters succeeding and that schools could do a better job if only central and local government would stop saddling them with more and more new schemes.

Leadership issues

The picture is brighter at the other end of the spectrum. Inspectors praised the quality of state nurseries and indicated private and voluntary ones should attempt to keep pace by appointing better bosses.

But they also said state schools still had major problems with the calibre of their leadership. One in six head teachers was judged either unsatisfactory or fair.

The first ever report summarising the performance of our education authorities said there were serious problems with the leadership in over a quarter of them.

And the same proportion was unsatisfactory or only fair at managing money and other resources.

In the course of the year the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association and the Headteachers Association of Scotland made separate calls for the 32 education authorities to be replaced by a far smaller number of area boards.

They claimed more could be spent in schools if less were needed to pay for the salaries and accommodation of council education officers.

Councils reacted angrily, pointing to the mergers of council departments such as education and social services, which have resulted in savings and a more joined up service for youngsters.

The year's exam results made disappointing reading for ministers. It is expected that the final figures released in the new year will reveal a drop of one per cent in the proportion passing three Highers, the minimum needed to win a place at university.

Disappointment too in that the much-praised drive to make school meals healthier has resulted in fewer takers.

To stop the "chippie" van being too convenient an alternative, policy makers are exploring the idea of removing permission for primary pupils to graze in the streets at lunchtime.


An OECD study brought confirmation that pay and conditions here are among the best in the world.

Secondary staff are the sixth highest paid, ahead of the United States, England and Sweden.

Most teachers are, within a few years of graduation, at the top of the scale: £31,000.

As the year closed ministers ordered a review of the Chartered Teacher qualification which allows staff to be on a salary of up to £38,000 without going for a promoted post which takes them away from the classroom.

There have been few takers for this scheme which union leaders lobbied for as an alternative to the introduction of performance related pay.

Early reports suggest teachers find it academic and are not convinced it will make them better teachers. There is also resistance to the idea of paying fees to take this professional qualification.

College funding

The landmark McCrone agreement on pay and conditions made the headlines after the watchdog Audit Scotland indicated the £2bn deal was negotiated in such a way it is impossible to tell whether it has improved children's education or been cost-effective to the public purse.

Further education colleges have quietly and successfully lobbied for substantial extra funds.

In return the Scottish Executive's Labour and Lib Dem coalition has been lobbying colleges to merge and also to modernise their buildings and what they teach.

One concern is that in 2007 the substantial funds colleges receive from Europe will diminish, as impoverished new partner states stake their claim.

Sam Galbraith, a former education minister, raised hackles when he claimed it was unsustainable for taxpayers to match what English universities are now receiving in higher tuition fees.

He said graduates here should, in the course of their careers, pay more than the one-off £2,000 endowment charge they pay at present.

Without change our universities were likely to fall behind their international counterparts, he said.

The E word

In the meantime institutions seem to be generating a little revenue by increasing the number of overseas students by almost 50% in the last five years.

There is no cap on what can be charged to those from outside the EU. And the added bonus is that the visitors also bring to campuses welcome cultural richness.

In the closing months Hugh Henry, a former member of Militant, now more in the centre ground, became Education Minister.

He could have a busy time in the run-up to the elections in the spring to the Scottish parliament.

First Minister Jack McConnell has already signalled that education in all its forms is likely to be centre stage.

Yes, from here on in, it will be the E word: education, education, education.

Source: BBC

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