Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

A lesson in Scandinavian education?

By Seonag MacKinnon BBC Scotland's Education Correspondent

Helsinki skyline
Politicians have visited Scandinavia to look at the education system

It was surely possible to hear the collective groan of teachers across Scotland this morning when not one but two leading politicians spoke on radio about education ideas gleaned from recent trips to Scandinavia.

Teachers commonly claim that politicians and education experts are prone to cherry picking ideas that appeal to them then imposing a never-ending series of them on classrooms here.

The gripe is that ideas may be subjected to only sketchy research and claimed benefits fail to materialise.

On Good Morning Scotland, Education Secretary Mike Russell indicated he was not persuaded Sweden had yet found the answers to problems affecting its schools.

High standards

He was more impressed by Finland which, according to a well-respected study by the Organisation for Economic Research and Development, has the world's most successful pupils.

High standards of education are credited with turning this country, which used to be known for timber production, into one of the world's most successful high-tech innovative economies.

Politicians and business leaders in Scotland, which is a similar size, would love to see Scottish education deliver the same economic miracle.

Mr Russell indicated Scotland might strive to reach the high standard of literacy in Finland through the planned review of teacher training here.

A major government report last month indicated reading and writing is now well taught in early primary. But it seems to be downhill after that.

In early secondary, when pupils are about to start their Standard Grade courses and two years away from potentially leaving school, an astonishing two out of three are failing to reach expected standards in writing. And the picture isn't much better for reading.

Family life

But there's a danger in assuming the success of Finnish pupils is down to their schooling. Studies indicate children there more commonly benefit from stable family lives and a strong tradition of reading at home for pleasure.

Scots pupils would already be doing very much better if these were standard features of their lives.

Tavish Scott, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, told listeners he was much struck by the 15 minutes each week of one-to-one interaction between teacher and pupil in Swedish schools.

Many would agree that the absence of anyone who really knows individual children in their first year of secondary school may have something to do with the common tendency to stop making progress during this key time in their lives.

But one-to-one tuition is expensive if it is a regular feature of a child's 11 compulsory years in school. West Dunbartonshire claims to have virtually wiped out illiteracy while offering one-to-one only to those who need it most.

More independence

The Institute of Directors in Scotland says it would like to see changes such as allowing head teachers more independence from local councils. East Lothian council is already considering introducing trusts to run schools.

In a related Holyrood debate last week, Labour abstained from a vote in favour of exploring the option of giving head teachers more control over their schools.

The Conservative party has long championed a feature of Sweden, a socialist country where "free" schools are paid for by the state but not run by the state.

Head teachers don't have to pass hundreds of decisions up the line to the town hall.

It may sound less democratic but the main Swedish teaching union has no apparent complaint.

Critics here say Swedish education is tumbling down international league tables, so why pay attention to it? But free schools still represent only a minority of schools there, so logically can't take sole responsibility for national trends.

Because of declining standards Sweden is planning to make all schools more accountable.

It believes given a long leash schools may have become a little over-relaxed.

Cue groans from Scottish teachers at the outside chance that MSPs may suddenly decide schools here need more scrutiny.

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