Magazine article The Spectator

Status Anxiety: Toby Young

Magazine article The Spectator

Status Anxiety: Toby Young

Article excerpt

I suppose we should be thankful that Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged there's a problem with Scotland's public education system, even if she's hit upon the wrong solution. Earlier this week, the First Minister announced that the Scottish -government would be trying out its version of 'the London challenge', a programme carried out by the last government, to address the chronic underachievement of Scotland's most deprived children.

In the past, the SNP has deflected criticisms of its education record by pointing out that Scottish 15-year-olds did marginally better than their English counterparts in the 2012 Pisa tests. But the difference between the two groups is minuscule and both have declined dramatically since Pisa first started testing in 2000. More recently, the Scottish government has been embarrassed by the error-strewn roll-out of the Curriculum for Excellence. The Highers linked to the new curriculum were supposed to be introduced last year, but half of Scotland's local authorities still haven't managed it.

It's not surprising that Sturgeon has alighted on 'the London challenge' as the model for improving Scotland's schools, since it involves giving local authorities more money, rather than schools more autonomy. As a general rule, increasing expenditure on education is an ineffective way of boosting attainment, as the last government discovered. Spending per pupil more than doubled in real terms under Labour, but Britain's schoolchildren continued their steady decline in the international league tables. Indeed, Andreas Schleicher, the man in charge of the Pisa tests, recently identified 'It's all about money' as one of the 'myths' about high-performing schools. He pointed out that students in the Slovak Republic perform at about the same level as students in America, even though America spends more than twice as much per pupil.

But is 'the London challenge' an exception? Until recently, most people thought so, and on the left it became Exhibit A in the case for not reducing the role of bureaucrats in England's public education system. Introduced in 2003 by Estelle Morris, it placed huge budgets in the hands of national and local officials, who spent them on 'training programmes' for 'school leaders', i.e. residential courses for London-based teachers who agreed to be lectured by Marxist professors in return for free food and wine. …

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