Debate : This House is of the Opinion that Scottish Education is no longer World Class

Kelvin Probus, with many retired educationalists in the audience, enjoyed the prospect of a debate on Scottish Education.  Scottish excellence in education is embedded in our bones!  As a result one could say that the mood of the debate was serious and suited the members looking for illumination rather than heat.  The outcome of the debate was perhaps predictable given the age profile of the membership.  “Things are never as good today than they were in ‘our time’!”  Anyway the vote was 24 for and 5 against the motion (83% : 17%).  Figures which were resonant with a straw poll vote taken on the last Zoom session in February.

The Club were fortunate to have the services of Des McNulty, academic and former Labour MSP, and Professor Moyra Boland, University of Glasgow, to lead the arguments for and against the motion.  The speakers were seconded by members Alan Murphy and Ken Fisher respectively, whose contributions were based on their career experience in industry and further education.  There was some amused surprise in learning that Alan and Ken had been in the same class at Hillhead Academy in yesteryear!  Last, but not least, John McCormick, former Controller of BBC Scotland, efficiently and effectively moderated the discussion during the debate.

Des’s case was largely built on the Government’s stalling school results over the last decade or so.  He strongly felt that the Curriculum for Excellence (CforE), more about a pedagogical approach than a syllabus, had been misunderstood and badly implemented.  Des observed that the Independent Sector had chosen not to use it and, in his view, was leading to mediocrity in our public schools.  Wrongly, the Education System is not being led by educationalists involved in setting the curriculum as it once was.  Internationally teachers are better rewarded and their focus is on getting the best from pupils according to their ability.  In his conclusions Des rhetorically asked if the CforE would produce an Adam Smith or James Watt?  In short, more effective educationalist involvement is required and we need to stop using the wrong tools to get the best results.

Moyra’s case very much stressed that every child deserves the best in education.  This is about equity, excellence and social justice.  It’s more than about a curriculum and league tables.  The aims of the CforE are about literacy, numeracy and well-being.  This is summed up as ‘getting it right for every child’ (or GIFREC).  She observed that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had only recently taken up well being as a measure.  Importantly, the quality of leadership in Scottish schools is at ‘Masters Level’ and compares very favourably with other professions.  When Scottish children leave school 93% left to go to work, further education or training.  Crucially for Moyra, in a 2018 OECD report, the international comparisons revealed that Scotland is in the top quartile of countries.  A demonstration, if any were needed, that Scottish Education is still world class!

Alan started by saying he has a ‘nuts and bolts’ take on things.  He was as bold to say that his generation were at the end of Scottish School Excellence, observing, in his view, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’.  A big hint that he had not been impressed at what he had observed in recent times.  Alan’s career involving much recruitment led him to conclude that ‘It’s the end product which counts’.  He left no doubt that he felt the modern product ‘could do better’.

Ken drew from his Further Education experience, a system which he told us is the envy of many countries.  One of Ken’s key points was that the College Boards of management are populated with people from industry, commerce, teaching, etc.  They have their finger on the pulse of the market place.  This means that the courses on offer continually evolve to suit what the market needs.  The colleges cater for the late learners and between 28 to 38% of children enter FE on leaving school.  In recent times they have also played a big role in educating migrants.  There is a high satisfaction level amongst the students, a significant measure of success.  For Ken, therefore, looking across all education sectors, Scottish Education is still world class.

Questions from the floor included grandparents’ concerns about the impact of the lockdown on children’s education and performance, the difficulty of the public being able to measure the quality of education, discipline in classes, often related to a lack of support for children with special needs, and reductions in face to face teaching hours.  The protagonists responded to these issues amplifying on the basic thrust of their arguments.

Overall the debate helped provide illumination on where Scotland’s education stands at the present time.  For this author there is a sense that, while Scotland still statistically fares well in the international league table, there was a feeling among the audience that the ranking did not reflect the direction of travel of Scotland’s education performance.  The fact that the system is no longer controlled by experienced educationalists is a factor.  All are for the laudable political aim to ‘get it right for every child’ but there is a feeling that reduced resources through austerity budgets reflected in declining teacher rewards and reduced specialist support for children with special needs in the classroom, do not reflect this aspiration.  So while Moyra made a good case, supported by the favourable OECD international ranking, a majority of the members voted for the motion.

This debate was a good day out helping members search their souls on matters of education so close to their heart.  Many thanks to the protagonists, Des, Moyra, Aland and Ken for making their cases. Also many thanks to John McCormick who chaired the debate quietly and efficiently.