You would think there was an election around the corner, with both the SNP and Scottish Labour rushing out new measures to tackle the country’s education failings. Jim Murphy has vowed to reintroduce chartered teacher status and tackle the poorest performing schools.
But it is the Nationalists’ promises that we should be scrutinising most closely because, whatever the result at Westminster on May 8, they will still be the party of government here, at least until the Scottish elections, a year from now.
In a speech in Dundee on Monday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon lamented the fact that there were children in every local authority in Scotland not achieving all they are capable of.
“In the most deprived 10% of areas of Scotland, fewer than one person in three leaves school with at least one Higher. In the most affluent areas it’s four out of every five. That is not acceptable.”
What she meant was that the gap in attainment was not acceptable and she’s right, it’s not. This is a bit of a breakthrough in SNP thinking. Up until now, whenever anyone dared to mention the fact that education here may not be what it once was, particularly for the poorest children, ministers have gone on the defensive.
Mike Russell, who had the schools portfolio until Ms Sturgeon sacked him last November, insisted when confronted with the yawning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids that vast sums were being spent and progress was being made.
But now there seems to have been a change of tack. There is a problem, admitted Ms Sturgeon and the Nationalists, in charge for the past eight years and therefore responsible, must find a solution.
So, can those of us who have long nagged the education establishment Labour ministers, as well as their SNP successors at last look forward to proper reform in Scottish schools?
At first, Ms Sturgeon’s proposals don’t look radical. There are to be attainment advisers employed by every council, to “reach” into Scotland’s schools. This brings to mind Jack McConnell’s physical activity coordinators to eradicate childhood obesity and will probably be about as effective.
And the extra funding of £3 million pledged by Ms Sturgeon, while welcome, is no answer to deeply entrenched inequality in Scotland’s classrooms. More money is spent per child here than in England yet our children are falling behind.
But there was one paragraph of the SNP leader’s speech that caught the attention and gave reason for hope.
“We will not shy away from learning lessons from initiatives such as the London Challenge. It has seen real sustained improvements in attainment and we are studying it with interest.”
Hooray! Finally, the penny has dropped. If something has been shown to work in another part of Great Britain, it makes sense to adopt it here.
The London Challenge which focused on the quality of school leadership has indeed been a success, with children on free school meals doing 50% better at GCSEs than their counterparts elsewhere.
London also saw the introduction of Teach First, which breaks the link between low family income and poor educational results by encouraging top graduates to become teachers in the most underrated schools.
Teach First was rolled out to the north-west of England, the north-east, the Midlands, Yorkshire, the Humber and Kent but not to Scotland.
Will Ms Sturgeon now belatedly borrow that scheme too? In fact, why not go all the way and follow the English model of academies that has rescued schools beyond the capital, in cities such as Manchester?
The transformative power of the policies put in place by the last UK education Secretary Michael Gove, and Tony Blair before him, are being felt throughout England but as yet they are a step too far for the Nationalists. “We will have no truck with the ideological nonsense of Gove and the Tories,” she said.
But what was the London Challenge if not an ideological break with the educational dogma of the recent past?
Of course, Ms Sturgeon can’t be seen to copy too many ideas from Labour or the Tories this close to an election, but at least she has taken a step on the ladder to reform. It is a start.