Who can we blame for Scotland’s poor performance in education, and in particular, the ever-widening gulf between the best and the worst schools? The minister responsible, Angela Constance, has only been in her job for six months, so obviously it has nothing to do with her.
She pointed the finger at teachers, accusing them of using poverty as an excuse for failure. She also blamed the system her party helped invent, saying it should give parents more information.
However, ultimately it wasn’t really Scotland’s fault at all but the Tories in Westminster, because, said Constance (conveniently forgetting that schools policy is completely devolved), we are “swimming against an unforgiving tide of funding cuts”.
The teachers hit back through their union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), criticising too much red tape (created by politicians), the “nightmare” of introducing new exams to replace Standard Grades and naturally, Tory austerity.
Scotland’s levels of numeracy and literacy are, according to official figures, in a spiral of decline. Furthermore, the number of students passing exams in modern languages such as French and German has dropped by a staggering 40%.
Something is wrong
At least now, though, there seems to be a general acceptance that something is wrong. This follows years of complacent education ministers and their underlings maintaining the faade that all was well, despite the swathes of children leaving school without qualifications.
Nicola Sturgeon has also grasped the extent of the problem and especially the gap in attainment between deprived and more affluent areas, which is hugely embarrassing for a government committed to equality.
She has made education a priority for her party, belatedly after eight years in power and conceded that more testing is needed before pupils reach 14. This is an about turn for Scotland, which has tried to differentiate itself from the rest of the UK by doing away with regular assessments and comparisons which show how a school is doing.
In fact, Scotland’s great hope the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was designed to reject what the unions called the “shallow testing, target-setting, league-table approach” of the Tories.
Our ministers do not produce school league tables and Scotland has withdrawn from two international reports comparing its performance with other countries, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.
In England, where data is more freely available and where 11-year-olds sit exams, parents have a much clearer idea of any shortcomings before secondary school, when bad habits have set in.
Here, we have preferred to talk about “value added” rather than actual results but now we discover this has not equipped our children with the competitive advantage they need to succeed.
Sturgeon has promised she will not be hamstrung by ideology and has noted the achievements of the London Challenge, which has improved standards in the capital’s schools since being launched by the Labour government in 2003.
However, her idea of reform does not go far enough and will, leading education experts warn, backfire on high achievers.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh, which last week attacked the “profound weaknesses” of the CfE, said Sturgeon’s new education bill would have little or no useful practical effect.
And Keir Bloomer, a former director of education, said the SNP’s proposed legislation, which imposes a duty on councils to close the attainment gap between good and bad schools, would have the unintended consequence of lowering standards for all.
He urged Sturgeon to contemplate radical policy changes, to give more power to schools and to let them depart from council and government control.
If this sounds familiar it is because it is what happens already, not just in London but all over England. The hated Tories, who actually spend more per head on education than Scotland does, picked up where Tony Blair left off in 2010.
Under the-then education minister Michael Gove, they spearheaded a revolution in the schools system that, while still in its early days, has transformed the fortunes of thousands of youngsters.
In many parts of England, it is no longer a life sentence to be born in a downtrodden neighbourhood, because a city academy or a free school offers the escape route of education.
These schools are not without their flaws but they have achieved much in a short timescale. According to the Sutton Trust, which promotes social mobility, in the five leading academy chains, the proportion of poor pupils achieving five good GCSEs is at least 15% higher than the average for similar pupils in non-academy schools.
And a report in the Economist last year found the new schools have injected something exciting into the education landscape, “the belief that regardless of wealth or background, schools can transform lives”.
If they can do that in England, why can’t we?