Glasgow City Council education department is very proud of defying the Scottish government's target for reducing class sizes in primary one to three - something the electorate backed in 2007. Instead Glasgow wants to spend any money it has on nuture classes. These have won international acclaim for giving specialised help to very young children who, for one reasons or another, cannot cope with normal school by the age of five. The city, on account of its poverty and related drug and alcohol problems, has quite a lot of children like this. It is not spelled out for fear of causing offence. But basically we are referring to kids who cannot hold either a pencil or a conversation - because nobody's ever paid them enough attention.
Now this is a commendable initiative. It's not really the job of schools to patch up the damage caused by hopeless parenting - but, if they don't, who will? It does, however, pose something of a problem for the majority of families who have aspirations for their kids, who do take the time to love them, nurture them and, yes, talk to them too.
So it seems to me that this is another example of priorities in Glasgow being set to meet the needs of the most marginalised. How does that help the very many children, often from families with average or below average income - who are not disruptive or deprived enough to merit this extra input. How is their education improved? Another example of these priorities is our obsession with NEETS - young people who leave school with no qualifications and fail to go into either work or to college. We are tailoring school towards these young people, focussing on practical skills etc. But teenagers who do want to go on to a decent university will find it difficult to sit an advanced higher in their chosen subjects. Many schools don't offer the courses.
Often, Glasgow parents vote with their feet and send their kids to schools in neighbouring education authorities. One of them is East Renfrewshire, often described as a leafy suburb, but which contains places like Barrhead, where BMWs and monkey puzzle trees are pretty thin on the ground. Regular readers of The Herald newspaper will know that some Glasgow parents have even gone to court to preserve an anomaly that allowed them to send their kids to East Renfrewshire's very popular schools.
These are run by John Wilson, a physics graduate from a Fife mining village who is totally committed to improving the attainment of all kids, no matter what their family background. Read Gillian Bowditch's interview with Wilson in The Sunday Times Ecosse
Why are his schools so successful? Here is a taster of Gillian's piece
At the heart of Wilson’s policy is the system of regular testing. National testing has been abandoned in Scotland and Ed Balls, the education secretary, is considering phasing it out in England, but Wilson is adamant that testing pupils is essential for their success. “I’m only a fan of testing because it gives us useful information,” he says. “The more information you have about a young person, the more you can help them progress.”
East Renfrewshire tests all children in literacy and numeracy at reception, primaries three, five and seven, and secondary 2.
All pupils are expected to take eight courses in fourth year and five in fifth year. Wilson has established the Education Management Information Service, which monitors pupils’ progress throughout the authority and allows staff to compare their departments’ achievements with other schools’.
It always struck me that there is a lot of hypocrisy around the public discourse about Scotland's schools.We publicly tag along behind the orthodoxy which suggests that exams and academic rigour are somehow a bad thing, or that attainment is not compatible with the development of social skills, creativity or job preparedness. This is the philosophy the lies behind The Curriculum for Excellence. Yet when it comes to making private decisions for their own children, many well informed parents quietly choose to send their offspring to more traditional schools like those run by Mr Wilson.
Another education story that touches on these concerns was by Gemma Mackenzie in Scotland on Sunday. It quoted a study that found most secondary pupils were disillusioned with their education within six months. Loads of research shows that pupils fall behind in the first years of secondary school. No wonder - they are bored stiff. Typically, the educational "experts" quoted in the piece say this will all change under the new curriculum. Head of the EIS teaching union Ronnie Smith blamed the poor performance in S1 annd S2 on us being "obsessed with qualifications".
This is untrue. Children in S1 and S2 are thrown into mixed ability classes. They are not tested. In fact, the education inspector HMIE has found that they are not monitored closely enough. How is the government intending to solve this? Well the new curriculum as far as I can see puts no emphasis on attainment, and actually extends the years of drift to S3 as well. The opposite of what is needed, in other words.