Scotland turns to the US for lesson in reform

In an extraordinary volte-face, Scottish Labour has accepted that the brightest children are no longer stretched enough in comprehensive schools - and is opting for an American solution. Claire Smith reports
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The Independent Online

The end of the road could be nigh for the bog-standard Scottish comprehensive if First Minister Jack McConnell and his Labour Party win Holyrood's 2007 elections.

While the Scottish National Party (SNP) are fighting under the flag of independence from Westminster, Scottish Labour have put education at the core of their battle plan. McConnell proposes 100 skills academies where those who are underachieving academically will be taught vocational subjects like plumbing and joinery.

In a more controversial move, he also wants to create a handful of specialist science academies to challenge the very brightest. He hopes they will have close ties with business. "We need an education system that stretches rather than stands still. We need more choices than there are today," McConnell says. His special adviser Douglas Campbell goes further. "For too long teachers have been catering to the lowest common denominator," he says.

It's a bold statement in a country that has some of the highest scores for reading, science and maths in Europe. It's even bolder when you consider that specialist schools for the smartest kids tends to mean one thing: selection. That is exactly what Scotland has spurned for decades. The comprehensive system was the model of socialist Scotland, creating equal opportunities and allowing people to pull themselves out of poverty. And it has worked. A 2005 study by Cristina Iannelli and Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, Moving Up and Down the Social Class Ladder in Scotland, showed that in 2001, nearly two-thirds of adults surveyed had moved to a different social class to that which they had been brought up in.

What's more, in 2004 McConnell was so against Tony Blair's proposals that city academies should be able to select 10 per cent of their students on ability that he sparked a policy rift with Westminster. He told the Scottish Parliament: "There will be centres of excellence, but let me be clear. There will be no elitist selection of pupils, but choice and diversity for different talents and ambitions will be available to all. I reject the calls to return to the divisive failures of the past when children were rejected at an early age."

That is perhaps why McConnell decided to look to the United States, not England, last month when he went in search of inspiration for his plans - and some dollars for the national sporran. "Our economy is changing, we're moving towards life sciences and bio medicine and many large US multinationals are starting to invest," Campbell says. "To be competitive we need to act now to produce the highest calibre of scientists."

Accompanied by Graham Donaldson, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, and Iain McMillan, the director of CBI Scotland, McConnell visited three top US schools including science-slanted Monta Vista High School in California and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, which has the highest SAT scores in the US and unashamedly selects pupils on ability. One of the things that impressed him, McConnell says, was the size of the science classes: "There was an atmosphere of being motivated and driven in their ambitions. I think that's a very healthy aspect of the scale of their classes."

So how do you get big science classes in a small country? You concentrate the best science students in one place. Does this mean we are going to see selection back in Scotland? Well yes - and no. Scottish Labour have a new word: election. Quite apt, considering the timing of the proposal.

The science academies will be for fifth and sixth form pupils only. Schools will be wanting those who are passionate about a career in science to "elect" to attend. Of course, only those with the right aptitude and ability will be accepted.

McConnell doesn't believe this is out of kilter with the comprehensive system, however. "Inside every secondary school when youngsters reach the upper school, teachers already select who will study the higher and advanced higher courses. This proposal is about ensuring, for those who wish to specialise in science, there is an opportunity inside the system to study in larger groups where they can bounce ideas off and motivate each other by competing."

Nor does he believe he's following England: "We're not in favour of fragmenting the system. The system in England is different, it always has been. In Scotland we benefit from having a proper comprehensive system, but within that system we are working to raise aspirations of pupils, parents and teachers."

Interestingly, "election" of this sort already exists in Scotland. There are seven centres of excellence where pupils who have a talent for sports, music or dance are admitted on the basis of ability. But these academies have escaped the tag of elitism because they exist as independently funded wings within local comprehensives. So, for example, at the Knightswood Dance Academy in Glasgow, there are 100 dance and music theatre pupils, who study maths, science and English alongside 1,300 pupils from the Knightswood catchment area.

The science academies, however, will be stand-alone colleges where students will study only science. McConnell believes this will help them develop ties with universities and with investors - though unlike England's academies, they will remain local-authority run.

Ian Muchan, Knightswood's head teacher, doesn't believe this is the way forward. "If you are going to have specialist schools they should be within the comprehensive context," he says. "It's important that there are benefits for other youngsters in the catchment area." What's more, he says, being in mainstream education helps keep the feet of future stars on the ground.

Dougie Pincock, director of the Traditional Music academy at Plockton High School in the Highlands, believes you need breadth and balance. "I can't imagine for the life of me what the benefit would be of someone that age only doing science," he says. "We work very hard to make sure our students don't only do music. It's all right, as long as you don't shut them off."

The Scottish teaching union, EIS, is also not happy. More clarification is needed about what is intended, said a spokesman for the union, which wants a debate as to whether there is a place in schools for specialisms in science and maths. "We don't want it to undermine the comprehensive system. We believe the system is working well."

Not everyone agrees with the comprehensive school lobby. Margaret Sutherland, of the Scottish Network for Able Pupils, believes that children need to be with others of like minds and similar aptitudes. "If we are serious about inclusion we can't do it without talking about gifted children. It's terribly sad when we get elitism mixed up with challenging ability."

Professor John Coggins, of the Scottish scientific advisory committee, however, does not believe selection is the way to get serious about science. Rather, he wants to see the resources spent on curriculum reform, which is already under way, so every child can have the opportunity to be taught science well.

"The gist of it is we have a boring curriculum," he says. "It would help if we pulled back on health and safety and allowed children to do more experiments in school. We have an obsession about risk which is exaggerated."

Coggins adds it is "a sad thing" that McConnell was looking for a lead from the US. "They are totally failing to produce quality graduates from high school in science. They have to fill their universities with science graduates from Asia."

According to Coggins, England doesn't have much to teach Scotland either: "England has science academies and I'm not convinced what we've learnt from England has been very useful."

Whether Scottish Labour's plans will ever make it off the ground remains to be seen. A split is now forming between Labour and its coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, over the future of specialist schools.

Iain Smith, the Lib Dem chairman of the parliament's education committee, says his party will not back McConnell's plan, claiming the policy amounts to selection of pupils by the back door, and that specialist schools undermine the fundamental principle of comprehensive education.

Fiona Hyslop, the SNP Shadow Minister for Education, is not in favour of Labour's vocational skills academies either. They are in danger of becoming ghetto schools, she says. "We've seen nothing for gifted children and nothing for those not in education, employment or training. Labour have almost sleepwalked through this parliamentary term and now they're making promises for post-2007."