Education & Family

A year in Scotland's education

This year the dream died of children being in classes of no more than 18 pupils in their first three years at school.

It was a flagship SNP promise in the 2007 election and hugely popular with both teachers and parents.

Supporters say it was a goal massively important to children in their formative years, which has been tragically blocked by the tight squeeze on public spending.

Critics say paying for an extra member of staff as soon as class numbers reach 19 was always unaffordable.

Last year the strategy reached its zenith with 21.6% of children in the early years in classes this small. But new figures indicate the policy has gone into reverse with a fall to 20.1%.

Many are disappointed. Others highlight research around the world suggesting it is more important to have a good teacher than a small class.

Teacher training

The education secretary Mike Russell says he still hopes that one day smaller classes will be widespread but has also begun to explore potential reform of teacher training including in-service. The profession has long maintained the quality and relevance of their training is variable.

Among the proposals in the Donaldson inquiry commissioned by the Scottish Government - tests in literacy and numeracy for prospective teachers.

The widely respected report has the potential to linger on a dusty shelf not least because its fate is bound up with another key report to which there is resistance. The McCormac inquiry into teachers' pay and conditions is vague in its final draft but seems to float the idea of in-service training and regular performance appraisals of both head teachers and staff.

It also proposes making the teacher contract less precise on the tasks and hours permissible in any given working week - a change which the review panel said would bring teachers into line with other professionals.

Teachers' leaders fear it could result in an uncapped workload and more time spent on mundane tasks such as photocopying.

Curriculum change

But teachers' more immediate concern is the squeeze on public spending which restricts the availability of computers, text books - and staff.

There's been a sharp fall in recent years in the number of teaching posts. Just 16% of those who qualified this summer obtained full-time permanent jobs.

And there's hardship too because of a controversial cut from £145 to £78 in the daily rate paid to experienced temporary teachers.

The de facto curriculum in Scotland has been scrapped and replaced by the "curriculum for excellence". Supporters say it gives teachers a new freedom to inject dynamism in to the classroom by drawing up their own relevant and interesting lessons.

It isn't a revolution in primary schools but there are many critics in the secondary sector. Some dub it the "curriculum for entertainment" with the potential to leave huge gaps in children's learning.

It may prove tricky to assess whether the curriculum is a success or failure as ministers have withdrawn Scotland from TIMMS and PIRLS, two of the three international education surveys in which most countries take part.

The OECD which carries out the third main survey, PISA , concluded Scotland is for now "treading water".

Exam results this year indicates academic performance is largely unchanged with 78% of 15 year olds passing five good Standard Grades and 26% of 16-year-olds passing three Highers.

University

Change is certainly happening at college level. The Scottish Government has severely cut funding and called for a wave of mergers. The hope is students will have more up-to-date courses and facilities if less money is spent on overheads and duplication. But there are fears of fewer student places at a time of record youth unemployment.

It is widely held that colleges lost out to universities, which became a big issue in this year's election. University principals are relieved their funding has been restored to the £1bn level they enjoyed before the cut of last year.

But privately they are nervous that the price will be the Scottish Government taking more control over their affairs, particularly after an imminent review of university governance.

Their other worry is that despite bursaries and some discounts, revenue from students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland may decline because of resistance to fees of up to £9,000 a year while Scots studying here do not pay for their education.

They may be pinning their hopes on the very excellent reputation of Scottish higher education. A survey this year indicated this tiny country of just over five million people has no fewer than five universities in the top 200 in the world.

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