ronnie mcgowanRonnie McGowan has been teaching since 1976. He notes that independent assessment tells us education in Scotland is in decline, and says Labour’s challenge must be radical and reforming, in the spirit of Crosland.


When a confident Nicola Sturgeon delivered the David Hume lecture An Education System for Everyone, in February 2015, her audience were led to believe the reputation of Scottish education was “better than ever”, and the Curriculum for Excellence was being “successfully implemented”.

However, she was in fact just about to remove her education minister, Mike Russell, and then rapidly sideline his anonymous replacement in the light of falling literacy and numeracy standards, assuming control of the education brief herself.

Recently the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation delivered a scathing report about the current state of education reform in Scotland. The OECD came to the conclusion that there were “declining relative and absolute achievement levels” and the particular challenge confronting secondary schools was the “higher incidence of low achievement among secondary pupils than previously”. In truth, Scottish education was worse than ever, and in effect the OECD placed Nicola Sturgeon and her government on ‘special measures’.

The egalitarian orthodoxy of the last thirty years, serving Scottish education well, is today being compromised by a First Minister, who may be in vogue but is out of touch and out of her depth.

The OECD recommend that the Curriculum for Excellence reforms should be re-launched, but with a clearer narrative. In other words there is a lack of communication and understanding of what the reforms are trying to achieve. The Scottish Government has been called to account for its lack of evaluation of the reforms; the OECD found no evaluation procedures in place. The First Minister’s “better than ever” boast lacked authenticity, any form of objective researched evidence and was not based on any of the preliminary findings of the OECD report which she commissioned. These weaknesses must have been apparent when delivering her speech one year ago.

Structural deficiencies within Curriculum for Excellence have resulted in an extraordinary scenario developing in secondary schools. It is now possible to exit compulsory education without having sat a diet of national exams.

Yes, read that sentence again.

This is a far cry from the good education Nicola Sturgeon said she received in Ayrshire during the 1980s, which was instrumental in elevating her to where she is today. The First Minister’s education came courtesy of a Labour administration on Strathclyde Regional Council which skilfully introduced the reforms of the day which were strong on widening choice and universal assessment (the Munn and Dunning reports led to the introduction of Standard Grade). There was evidence that Standard Grade diminished the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. Now the attainment gap is widening, on the First Minister’s watch, denting her credibility on social justice while offering only a legacy of educational failure for this generation of young people in Scotland, especially those in the peripheral housing schemes of our cities.

And it is worth reminding anyone who may question the credentials of the Scottish Labour Party that, around the same time, it was under the stewardship of Dr Malcolm Green that Gaelic medium education was introduced in Strathclyde, first in Bishopbriggs then outwards to communities in Argyll and the islands; the Labour Party in Scotland must plead guilty to implementing a meaningful set of education reforms which were ambitious, aspirational and successful. Not bad for the branch office.

Education is what the Labour Party does best, and it is where it can start to impact on the current political landscape. It was that cautious revolutionary, Anthony Crosland, arguably the most influential voice of modern UK social democracy, who claimed, “education as an investment yields a great return”; and if alive today he might also say that education reform should be the driving force for a better social equity.

The Labour Party has to rediscover a truly radical edge to its education thinking and tackle the downward trend in attainment. Families on those housing schemes are only too aware of the importance of a good education for their children – it is the gateway to successful employment opportunities. What they don’t want is a Curriculum for Mediocrity; their children deserve better than that. But this Holyrood government is falling short on the delivery of a core service which is vital for the development of our young people.

The Labour Party should re-establish the vision, rooted in the best traditions of fairness and ambition, of Assessment for All, where every school pupil has the opportunity to aim at a qualification with currency and upward progression. Today assessment procedures are fraying at the edges, a concern also flagged up by the OECD.

Entrance qualifications to teacher training should be beefed up, especially the minimum qualification in mathematics. This in turn would require examinations to be fit for purpose, with no repeat of the Scottish Qualification Authority debacle in 2015 where reduced pass marks made a lottery of twelve years of education.

The deployment of staff in schools should be reviewed with a detailed look at the funding of promoted posts whose very function should be up for examination. Pupils need boots on the classroom floor not out of the classroom door.

A robust well organised embedded Volunteer Task Force could be set up, fashioned on the big educational initiatives of Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency, introducing enthusiastic and idealistic young students into schools to work alongside teachers and parents with the aim of raising standards in literacy and numeracy. Universities could be trawled for the best and brightest of those willing to devote time and energy as part of their undergraduate course, with the carrot of having fees or loans written off.

But let’s leave the final words to Crosland, echoing down the years. “We must have radical reform or none at all.”