Why Scotland’s approach to publicly funded education works | Education | The Guardian

Why Scotland’s approach to publicly funded education works

Unlike the ‘three initiatives before breakfast’ hyperactivity of the Engish regime, Scotland’s modest, consensus-seeking approach celebrates education as a public good, says Melissa Benn

Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government

Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government, who declared himself ‘stunned’ at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Last week, a British education minister spoke eloquently of the necessity of a highly qualified teaching profession, free university learning and the vital importance of public education as a “societal, not just an individual, good”.

No, Michael Gove has not had a radical change of heart over the summer break. The minister in question was Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education in the SNP government. He and I were sharing a platform at a packed session at this year’s Edinburgh book festival on “the value of education”, with many cogent and passionate contributions from leading academics and educationalists.

The most immediate thing to strike a visitor from Planet Gove is how very different the atmosphere and assumptions are on this subject north of the border. With its proud tradition of the “democratic intellect”, long history of compulsory education and world-renowned universities, the Scots seem genuinely to value their school system.

Here one finds very little teacher-bashing and scant reference to market solutions to social problems. At the Edinburgh event, the overriding concern was how to improve access by poorer students to higher and further learning and keep universities free, despite considerable pressure from an unholy alliance of English newspapers and Scottish conservatives. There is a heartening and robust belief in publicly funded, publicly accountable high-quality education.

Is this perhaps the very reason we in England hear so little about Scotland‘s education system, bar some envious carping at its avoidance of tuition fees? While every fashionable free-schooler or educational conservative has rushed to bash underfunded Wales as proof of comprehensive failure, or bemoaned attempts in Northern Ireland to eliminate its outmoded selective system, there is little discussion of the evident strengths of the Scottish comprehensive system.

In fact, Scotland has deliberately rejected what Russell accurately labels the Germ (Global Education Reform Movement) approach so beloved of the coalition, with its commitment to privatisation, competition and deregulation.

He is rightly scathing of the “three initiatives before breakfast” policy-hyperactivity of the current English government. At the Edinburgh session he declared himself “stunned” at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Rigorous teacher training is at the heart of the Scottish approach, and there are plans, modelled upon the Finnish example, to require every teacher to possess a master’s in addition to a first degree.

Scotland publishes no official league tables, although individual schools obviously release their results. (Even Wales now publishes the results of secondary schools grouped into one of five bands.) The Scottish government is moving towards greater school self-evaluation and has, over the past decade, slowly rolled out a progressive “curriculum for excellence”, in stark contrast to our own government’s speedily devised, overly prescriptive and increasingly contested programmes for learning.

And it seems to be working. Results for Scottish highers, a formal examination taken between 16 and 19, have slowly climbed over the years and are up again in 2012, with no serious claims of grade inflation. From this year, pilot schemes will be rolled out, with the ultimate aim of each child learning two languages in addition to their own. And only last year, the Royal Society praised the high numbers of Scottish students ??? 49.7% ??? who study science to the higher levels, and suggested that the rest of the UK should emulate Scotland in this regard.

Denominational schooling is still a huge issue and while some indicators suggest that Scotland is better at educating its poorer students than we are in England, it remains, like all parts of the UK, dogged by an unacceptable attainment gap based on social class.

Acknowledging this, Russell points to “some spectacularly good practice” on improving the performance of low-income students in Glasgow’s toughest schools. It is an approach, says Russell, consistent with Scotland’s belief in “collaboration rather than competition”. He adds succinctly: “We do not believe that poverty is destiny. But Kipp (a reference to the US Charter model) would not work for us.”

Not perfect but improving: that seemed to be the general, modest consensus up in Edinburgh. Indeed, it may be that modesty and consensus-seeking are the hallmarks of Scotland’s approach, in marked contrast to the “quick fix”, grandstanding approach of Germ guerillas everywhere who deliberately seek to undermine public trust and confidence in the role of the state.

Scotland offers another model, celebrating both the possibilities of good government and education as a public good. As a result, it could well nudge ahead of busy old England in the years to come.

Melissa Benn’s latest book School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education is published by Verso


  • This symbol indicates that that person is The Guardian's staffStaff
  • This symbol indicates that that person is a contributorContributor

Comments on this page are now closed.

Comments on this page are now closed.
  • madmonty

    27 August 2012 7:34PM

    In Scotland there are three professions still held in very high regard




    Education is still seen in Scotland as an important springboard for a career, and needs to nurtered and promoted. There was an old saying in Victorian times, ‘The Scots or Welsh invented it, the English paid for it, and the Irish built it’…..I wonder why….

  • GenHernandez

    27 August 2012 8:05PM

    There was an old saying in Victorian times, ‘The Scots or Welsh invented it, the English paid for it, and the Irish built it’.

    So that’s where the myth that all tax is English comes from….

  • heedtracker

    27 August 2012 8:21PM

    Scotland offers another model, celebrating both the possibilities of good government and education as a public good
    Thank you Melissa! And thank you Guardian.

  • Wyvis7

    27 August 2012 8:55PM

    Bit of a paen to the past, isn’t it? Meanwhile, Scotland is to return to a ‘progressive’ 1970’s model of education.

  • Arethosemyfeet

    27 August 2012 9:04PM

    Whilst education in Scotland is in demonstrably better shape than in England, it’s not without its own problems. CfE is under-resourced and lacking in clarity, with no guidance on what is actually meant by different levels, and a real paucity of support in general. New qualifications will be examined in less than 2 years’ time and we have yet to see specimen exam papers, nor specimen instruments of assessment for internally examined modules. CfE has a lot of good ideas, and the move away from a constant focus on pushing students over the next hurdle is a refreshing change from Key Stage tests and the like, but the jury is still out on the overall impact.

  • Oldmanmackie

    27 August 2012 9:11PM

    Glad this has been picked up on by the media. We know it ain’t perfect but it IS improving. There is also a growing improvement in ‘joined-up’ working between different professions within Education since the advent of the Curriculum for Excellence. It’s still in its infancy but here in Fife there is already work afoot to cater for the differing demands of the young people. How it pans out over the coming years will be interesting. We’re also working hard to ensure that every young person has an offer of further education once they reach the end of their schooling.

  • Oldmanmackie

    27 August 2012 9:13PM

    Agreed – it seems that alot of teachers are still unsure about how it is supposed to work and i’ve heard complaints that it is under-resourced. It is a great idea in theory but how it operates in practice will need to be reviewed to ensure that the priniciples are being met.

  • Rider000

    27 August 2012 9:49PM

    I wonder if the extra ??2,600 per clasroom spend in Scotland per year has any impact?

  • maisiedotts

    27 August 2012 9:50PM

    Wow a positive article about Scotland in Guardian – I do not believe it! Good piece Melissa – thanks.

  • answer

    27 August 2012 10:33PM

    scotland even with free university fees manages to produce only 7.14% of new UK undergraduates in 2011.

    glad to help.

  • Ricosoavarooski

    27 August 2012 11:07PM

    Another reason for me to explore the possibility of filing a claim on ancestral family land near Bedrule, Teviotdale on the Borders — where as it happens William Turnbull, founder of the University of Glasgow (1451) was born.
    There’s something to be learned from the Scots, as usual.

  • Jimmy48

    27 August 2012 11:33PM

    Do you have a source for that claim? I tried to find figures on this briefly and unsuccessfully. According to Wikipedia, Scotland is 8.44% of the UK population so your figure is lower than expected. Numbers in post-secondary education are 739000 for Scotland, 3.7 million for England, which is about twice as many per head of population in Scotland. Different datasets of course, showing all types of post-secondary education rather than graduates, and not 2011. But until you post your source its all I have.

  • Billlogan

    27 August 2012 11:45PM

    People in England shouldn’t be so easily convinced that schools in Scotland are any better than those in England. That view can be easily clouded by the fact that we sit different examinations and not many do courses as demanding as “A” levels, even though “Advanced Highers” should be available. In fact, hardly any employer understands what the current qualifications actually mean, such is the level of confusion. As an example, a GCSE age pupil could be studying for a Standard Grade at foundation, general or credit level. On the other hand, they could be studying for Intermediate 1 or Intermediate 2 and this is all for the one subject. Can you blame anyone for being confused? At least in England, Wales and Northern Ireland pupils all sit the same level of examinations, although they are set by different boards

    Of course, the government delighted the education establishment in Scotland by stopping publishing league tables but thankfully our newspapers publish them anyway, using information from http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scottishschoolsonline/index.asp This shows clearly that the vast majority of our top 20 performing state schools are in wealthy commuter suburbs and authorities such as East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire and Aberdeenshire, a fact that is not ignored by estate agents. It also shows us that the results in major cities like Glasgow and Dundee are lamentably low and very few pupils attain even basic university entrance qualifications.Another dark secret is the fact that state schools have proven to be quite unpopular in the capital city, Edinburgh, where over 25% of the secondary pupils are in private schools, a figure much higher than nearly every English city.

    Of course one thing that will delight Melissa Benn is that, unlike in England, every state schools became a comprehensive, although some are much more comprehensive than others and are all, bar one, run by local authorities. The interesting thing is that the single exception, Jordanhill School in Glasgow, is always comfortably the best performing state school in the country. In many countries a school like that may be a roll-model but in Scotland it has been ignored.

  • heedtracker

    28 August 2012 12:23AM

    Another dark secret is the fact that state schools have proven to be quite unpopular in the capital city, Edinburgh, where over 25% of the secondary pupils are in private schools,
    That’s really weak. Do you live in Scotland? The fact that Embro has a high number of expensive private schools is hardly a “dark secret” LOL!
    Edinburgh has always been like this and if you lived in Scotland you would know that.
    The dark secrets of Edinburgh. Got any more? Like every year Edinburgh has a big arts festival maybe?

    • dorice

      28 August 2012 8:13AM

      As I’ve said – have a read of Allyson Pollock’s ‘NHS Franchising ‘ piece for something similar about public health.

      Something’s happening – and I like it.

    • dorice

      28 August 2012 8:45AM

      Doesn’t matter Rico.

      No matter what you read here about ‘the Scots’, almost 500,000 English people live and work in Scotland.

      I’m one of them (although I’m retired now).

      The fact that my mother was (mostly) Scottish doesn’t matter. All are welcome, and as I’ve said here several times, my local SNP group consists of Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh, Cypriot, Turkish, Pakistani, Indian, New Zealand, Australian, Chinese, Polish, Lithuanian (newest members), and a few other nationalities as members and office-bearers.
      So ‘Scots’ ? Not really.
      All want the current Scottish Government as the government of an Independent Scotland, and all are proud of their own heritage.

      We also like the fact that 19 of the 20 members of the Scottish Government/Cabinet were educated at local authority schools (one went to Loretto), and all of those who went on to further education did so at Scottish universities and colleges. There are NO Oxbridge PPI Graduates among them, but there are graduates in Maths, Economics, various Sciences, English, Languages, History, Sociology, Medicine, and other ‘real’ subjects.
      And they all had lives before politics (Keith Brown was a Royal Marine Commando and fought at the sharp end of the Falklands War. I’m sure I met him a couple of years earlier)

      Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll now see an editorial looking at THIS fundamental difference between Holyrood and Westminster, and what it means for Government and the people who elected that Government ?

      We’ve been pointing out for some time that the Guardian has attacked, demeaned, insulted, and condemned the Scottish Government without justification.
      Some of it’s ‘in house’ writers have used mis/disinformation and worse to do this, yet they are attacking a Government that the Guardian SHOULD be supporting, and holding up as an example of a genuine liberal/social democratic government – the ONLY one – in the UK.

      If this continues, and we see changes in the Guardian’s ‘Scottish Section’, I might even reactivate my 40+ year subscription that I cancelled in disgust at the unwarranted and dishonest bias a few months ago !

    • yestogrammarschools

      28 August 2012 9:14AM

      The fact that Embro has a high number of expensive private schools is hardly a “dark secret” LOL!

      It wasn’t mentioned by Melissa Benn. I hadn’t known that over 25% of secondary pupils in Edinburgh were in private schools, so I’m grateful to Billlogan for pointing it out. It’s the sort of thing that Scottish educationists should bear in mind, or they may start to believe in their own publicity.

    • maisiedotts

      28 August 2012 9:16AM

      If this continues, and we see changes in the Guardian’s ‘Scottish Section’, I might even reactivate my 40+ year subscription that I cancelled in disgust at the unwarranted and dishonest bias a few months ago !

      2 swallows do not a summer make …………… I’ll reserve judgement for some time on Guardian bias or lack of it.

    • Billlogan

      28 August 2012 9:39AM

      “I hadn’t known that over 25% of secondary pupils in Edinburgh were in private schools, so I’m grateful to Billlogan for pointing it out. It’s the sort of thing that Scottish educationists should bear in mind, or they may start to believe in their own publicity.”

      I’m glad that I was able to give you that information which Scottish educationists like to keep quiet. I also came across this bit of information in the Economist, which must also be hurtful for those who trumpet about Scotland’s “fairer” education system.

      “Scottish university students differ from their English counterparts in another, surprising way: they are particularly posh. What makes this puzzling is that just 4.3% of schoolchildren in Scotland attend private schools, compared to 7% in England. Yet the proportion of privately educated students in universities in Scotland is almost identical to that in England: 8.7% and 8.8%, respectively. Moreover the proportion of university students who come from the lower social classes is far lower in Scotland than in England: 27.9% compared to 31.4%, according to data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on March 29th.”

      I wonder if Melissa knew about these statistics before she wrote her ill-informed piece. so much for equality in what somebody described as the only social democratically governed part of the UK. Somehow I doubt it, as very few people do. In Scotland we sometimes ignore the facts and believe that if we repeat something often enough it must be true.

    • Jimmy48

      28 August 2012 9:46AM

      So when it suits your purposes you’ll look at a small subset (Edinburgh) and say they have very high numbers of privately educated pupils, but later when it suits your purposes you’ll point out that overall Scotland has a much lower percentage of pupils in private schools. This is shameless misuse of statistics.

    • dorice

      28 August 2012 9:53AM

      You might live in Scotland, but if you think Embra is ‘posh’, you’re very wrong.

      It has the same problems as any/every other city – it just hides them very well. I moved there when Embra was called ‘the Heroin Capital of Europe’ – and it deserved that title.
      It also produced one of the largest, best organised, and most violent football hooligan gangs in the UK, if not Europe (Hibernian’s ‘Capital City Service’)
      Yes, there are quite a few private schools there, and the reason for that is historic – it’s nothing to do with any Government.
      Anyway, 7% of schools in England are private (and it’s rising), while only 4%-4.5% of Scottish schools are private.
      I can think of a few former private schools that are now Local Authority – Marr, Royal High in Embra being two.
      Jordanhill in Weegie is interesting. It’s funded directly by Holyrood, not the Local Authority, isn’t fee-paying, but is listed as ‘Independent’ … but it isn’t .
      Can anyone explain this ?
      All I know about the school is that I played in the Front Row against Ian McLauchlan during the 70’s and it hurt.

      I don’t like the idea of comparing cities. London has 8.2 million people, and it’s 33 Boroughs have populations equal to most other cities in the UK ! How can we compare London with Edinburgh – pop 421,000, or Birmingham with 1.1 million, and Dundee with 125,000 ? I think 32 of London’s Boroughs have bigger populations than Dundee !

      Do you have any percentages for Edinburgh ? I’ve looked, and while there are 17 private schools listed, that includes primary schools, and schools with few pupils.
      There are 21 Local Authority Secondary Schools, averaging around 1,000 pupils.

      One thing to remember about Embra’s private schools – many of their pupils are boarders – they don’t come from Edinburgh.
      Fettes, Watsons, Merchiston, Stew-Mel, and a few other all have boarders, but how many I don’t know.

      Then there’s the likes of Gordonstoun. No city, but with 500 boarders (from a roll of 600) we could probably ‘prove’ that more kids in Moray are privately educated in boarding schools there than … well …. you choose.
      The nearest village is Duffus, and considering the school’s Royal connections, how I wish it was called ‘Doofus’.

    • Billlogan

      28 August 2012 10:00AM

      “Edinburgh is proud of and famous for it’s private schools and anyone considering one knows that,
      You’re a tory troll and that’s not “a dark secret”

      I’m glad that you are proud of Edinburgh’s private schools and so you should be. I’m not in the least insulted by your term “tory troll”, as I try my best not to throw personal insults at or misinform people and will always apologise if I make an error. Veritas is what matters in the end.

    • answer

      28 August 2012 10:00AM

      scotland punching above it’s weight in Nursing! (10% of scots university places dedicated to nursing)

      2011 new undergraduates to Nursing (B7)

      2,960 scotland

      but only

      19,483 England

      2011 new undergraduates to Economics (L1)

      133 scotland (133 is not a typo)

      but only

      5,059 England

      2011 new undergraduates to Education (X)

      949 scotland

      but only

      14,555 England

      glad to help.

    • maisiedotts

      28 August 2012 10:07AM

      Addendum to my previous post.

      You are aware that private schools in Edinburgh have a high percentage of pupils from outwith the region who either commute (day pupils) or board (full-time or weekly) but are not technically Edinburgh “residents” surely?

      The Dundee/Fife rush hour trains are testimony to the high number of “day” pupils. I’m equally sure that is true from Perthshire and other parts of Scotland including Glasgow.

    • maisiedotts

      28 August 2012 10:20AM

      I try my best not to throw personal insults at or misinform people and will always apologise if I make an error.

      Then you’d better start apologising and checking your “facts” before posting.

      How many of the private schools do “day”, “weekly” and “fulltime” boarding and what % of the given figure for pupils come from outwith the City and Region?

      I’ve just checked two schools Loretto and Stewart’s Melville, they both do.

    • dorice

      28 August 2012 10:25AM

      Where did you get the ‘25%’ for Edinburgh ?

      I’ve looked, and it’s not even close to that.

      And why do you ‘doubt’ that Holyrood is the UK’s only genuinely social democrat government ? You have your opinion, I deal in facts.
      Those facts include the policies and principles of the Scottish Government – many of which have either been passed into law, or will be in the future.
      It’s that only UK Government that has equal, human, and civil rights as a central part of government, and the fact that every bill is preceded by an extensive public consultation adds to that.
      Most Bills are passed with all-party support.
      It’s the only government that opposes the privatisation of it’s health and education services.

      You accuse the author of being ‘ill-informed’. I’d like to see some evidence supporting your allegation.

      I know you support Osborne’s policies, I know you don’t like single mothers, ‘unchecked’ immigration, and believe that only heterosexual parents can provide the right conditions for children.
      Yet you oppose Trident (so we agree on that if nothing else).

      However, you lack knowledge when it comes to Scotland and what actually happens here. For example, many in the SNP think Labour’s idea of ‘everyone going to university’ is ridiculous. They’d rather see a policy of more real apprenticeships leading to real jobs – and that’s happening.
      Everyone SHOULD have access to Further Education, and that’s what we have in Scotland. That a slightly smaller percentage choose NOT to go to college or university means nothing – only that they have chosen not to !
      You seem to be suggesting that only university admissions should be used to judge the success of an education system, and THAT is a (failed) Labour principle.

      It will take some time for the CfE to show results, but the principle is that every child has a talent, and that talent should be identified, encouraged, supported, and advanced.
      There are theoretical physicists, mathematicians, artists, surgeons, teachers, plumbers, brickies, IT specialists, and more in our ‘sink’ estates.
      We just have to identify them and give them the opportunity to flourish, and that’s what should happen.

  • Not really, that is because most of Scotland’s private schools are within the City of Edinburgh precincts. Higher number of private schools – higher number of boarders, weekly boarders and day pupils from outwith Edinburgh. Which then makes the figures totally skewed, and that % cannot be relied upon as accurate for Edinburgh only residents/children.

    Makes one wonder whether the proportion of private pupils in Scotland is similar to the proportion of pupils from families resident in Scotland who are at private schools.

    Unlikely. Ask yourself this do the pupils represent those only with familes living within the City? That is the definitive figure which so far no-one has given.

    I know of a family in Wales who sent sons to Shrewsbury School (in England).

    Many pupils at Gordonstoun for example are not children of those resident in Scotland either. I’m not sure what that “proves” other than parents decide to send their children to fee paying private schools so therefore choose according to reputation and/or where they themselves were pupils.

    It’s a false dichotomy, without the actual figures for the home address at which pupils normally reside a true figure for Edinburgh resident pupils cannot be reached.

    Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: