Monday, 21 September 2015

On Education

There’s been a lot of discussion lately of the SNP Government’s decision to reintroduce national testing in schools. The Tories and Labour had been agitating for it, and although the First Minister has said she doesn’t want to see crude league tables produced, I don’t see how this can be avoided. Getting better data is one thing; embedding a teaching-to-the-test culture is another.

There’s still an attainment challenge in Scotland; and as with many things, East Lothian is Scotland in microcosm.

A report going to the council’s education committee this week details some really positive results but also makes clear there’s work to do. The percentage of S5 pupils gaining 1 or more awards at SCQF Level 6 or above (a Higher, for example) increased by 6.25 per cent in 2015 and shows an improving trend in East Lothian over the last 4 years.

The secondary school our Bairn will probably go to in less than 7 years‘ time - Musselburgh Grammar School (MGS) - has seen a 2.2 per cent increase in pass rates in the past year to 83.2 per cent, with even bigger rises at Ross High and Preston Lodge. All schools in the county have a pass rate of at least 80 per cent, except Knox Academy in Haddington, which is just shy of the mark. MGS is getting close to the leader of the pack, North Berwick (NB), at 85.9. (Leader of the pack? See what I mean about crude league tables being unavoidable?)

Overall, East Lothian shows an improved trend in the percentage of S6 pupils gaining awards at SCQF Level 7 (Advanced Higher). But the difference between schools is stark. NB performs strongly, with Ross High in my home town Tranent seeing a big drop to just 4 per cent. Musselburgh has picked up from a low base but still has a way to go.

Given the overall pass rates are good, there’s obviously something going on in our communities to make such a difference in S6 outcomes. I’m going to wager that family and community wealth is a factor, giving some kids more chance to realise their potential. The difference is hinted at on the high streets. NB town centre has artisan bakeries and hipster coffee houses, while Musselburgh has bargains galore with charity shops and pound shops. The median property price in the Honest Toun at the moment is £140,000. In NB it’s almost £400,000.

Of course, within each community there's a variety of backgrounds so it's not entirely fair to generalise. But where schools are struggling to improve the level of qualifications we need to see resources being targeted not just in the school but in the community, and I'd argue not just by the local authority but by a wider range of education and employment interests.

Last year I highlighted a drop in local school leavers going into further education.

The Skills Development Scotland snapshot showed only 19.4 per cent of those who left school in East Lothian during 2013/14 ended up at college, compared to 24.9 per cent during 2012/13, a drop of 5.5 per cent.

Our colleges are being squeezed from two sides, with unfair austerity from Westminster and a Scottish Government turning its back on the kind of part-time courses that are so important to widening access to education. At the start of this year I met with Edinburgh College bosses to discuss their hopes of reaching into East Lothian by developing stronger links with secondary schools and employers.
Meeting Ray McCowan, vice-principal of Edinburgh College

I read in one of the local newspapers recently that Labour MSP Iain Gray says he’s taking an interest in the idea. But rather than the shiny new campus that he seemed to envisage, I’d rather pursue the idea of adapting what already exists - our secondary schools.

Can we retain our young people and make further education more attractive, affordable and accessible by providing colleges courses in our communities? I’m aware most of the county’s six secondary schools are bursting at the seams but this is an exciting opportunity our local authority must look at.

Of course, East Lothian might not have a college but it does have a university. Although, weirdly, Queen Margaret University on the south-western fringe of Musselburgh badges itself as an Edinburgh institution. Given that one of its specialities is public relations and marketing, why is it ashamed to promote its true location?

QMU is hoping to expand. It has plans - labelled an “innovation hub” - to develop the surrounding farmland for business units, flats, shops and a hotel. So far, so business as usual. The university even insists that local road capacity must be expanded before any development goes ahead. And at the same time it is hoping to secure part of the potential £1bn city region deal fund being worked up. I’m struggling to see anything genuinely innovative. Even their serving suggestion pictures of what the development might look like are uninspiring. Low-wage corporate whiners Costa Coffee?

More importantly, I don’t see an answer to the challenge of how to bring QMU and the community of Musselburgh closer together. There is a feeling in the community that it’s easy for students to arrive on campus from Edinburgh and head back there. We must ensure any expansion of QMU enhances local links. I’m afraid a row of chain stores doesn’t cut it. How do we draw students into the town, and how will the university help make that happen?

The need for education to be a greater priority is clear, joining up primary and secondary, further and higher education, employment and communities.

A final thought, given how important this is. Isn’t it a bit bizarre that the East Lothian education committee comprises, in addition to local councillors, representatives of the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church. Why not representatives from colleges, universities, skills/enterprise/employment agencies and community partnerships? This sort of religious oversight feels a bit old school, so to speak.

East Lothian has the chance of a brighter future for all our young people but we need some fresh approaches to education if we’re to get there.

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