Some Advice for Ms Somerville

So the SNP pack has been shuffled and Mr Swinney’s off to take charge of COVID recovery, a hard job in which everyone must wish him success. It hasn’t been easy to look after Education in recent years, and I feel a little guilty to have been lambasting him so often, even as pupils in the ‘senior phase’ set off each morning to do the exams from their cancelled exam diet.

So Education has a new Cabinet Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville, one who comes with good credentials from her previous work as Higher and Further Education minister, a clever politician with good attention to detail, strong and principled. The word that comes up a lot is ‘serious’ – and Education is, these days, a serious business. She has a mountain to climb to restore Scottish Education; here are some ideas, from a former Head Teacher, that she might like to consider.

One huge issue is this: who runs our education system? I suggest immediately re-establishing an independent inspectorate – the inspectors will welcome this – and asking them to focus on an honest appraisal of what’s going wrong (and what’s going right). This might be guided by the appointment of a Chief Education Officer for Scotland (the idea of a clever friend of mine): why is there one for Health but not for Education? Then try to answer the impenetrable question – what does Education Scotland do? Ask Head Teachers and their staff about that – then spend the money elsewhere. 

We await the OECD report on Curriculum for Excellence; but we know that relative to other countries our standards in Maths and Science in particular are in decline. At the very least it will be necessary to scale CfE back in the senior stages of secondary school; this needs to happen quickly to ensure that our most academic pupils can excel and that all our young people have a sure grounding in basics. Consider bringing in baseline senior certification in Reading and Writing. Consider also paying Scottish teachers to do extra-curricular activities, in order to take the commendable ideals of CfE – raising confidence, fostering citizenship and community, encouraging individual responsibility – into other arenas apart from the classroom itself. This is why independent schools do so well in CfE inspections. In general, consider paying teachers more, encouraging a beleaguered profession and ensuring there are enough able teachers to provide their essential roles in young people’s lives. 

Then consider vocational education at the secondary level. Far too many young people in Scotland are wasting time at school, learning – or trying to learn – things that don’t interest them. Accept that there are different kinds of intelligence and that many, many young Scots perceive themselves as ‘stupid’ because they can’t get their Highers. Consider strategies to help teachers and Heads deal with discipline effectively and ask the question – is ‘the presumption of mainstreaming’ really the most effective way to educate all our young people?

Ms Somerville, all this should begin by consulting with teachers (not just their unions), with parents and with young people. Further decline in Scottish educational standards is not inevitable; let’s have a Scotland where all our young people are happy at school, challenged and thriving. All of us in Scottish education, past and present and future, wish you luck and success.


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