Nicola Sturgeon has been told to take her head out of the sand after one of Scotland’s most high-profile entrepreneurs questioned her why education reforms that have closed the attainment gap in England have not been adopted in Scotland.
Sir Tom Hunter praised the freedom to innovate and academic success at academy schools south of the Border, which are outside local authority control, and asked the First Minister “why we wouldn’t give our kids a chance to have this?”
Speaking during a programme broadcast by BBC Scotland tonight, Mr Sturgeon repeated her insistence that her drive to close the gulf between the best and worst state schools was not limited by political ideology.
But the First Minister has previously said she is not convinced that freeing schools from the control of Scotland’s 32 local authorities would help and she has instead focused on directing more public money to the councils with the worst-performing schools.
Liz Smith, Scottish Tory young people spokesman, accused Ms Sturgeon of having her head in the sand, saying: “The First Minister promised to turn this problem around and said that she was open to new ideas, but so far there has been little evidence of this.
“The time has come for radical action to dismantle the damaging, one-size-fits-all approach which provides parents with no choice and which holds back head teachers from making the innovative reforms to help raise attainment.”
The businessman concluded at the end of the programme, which is titled BBC Scotland Investigates: Educating Sir Tom, that one model of schooling “doesn’t fit all” and questioned whether Scotland’s political leaders were “afraid” of taking the steps required.
He added: “I would say we’d be doing Scotland’s children a disservice if we were afraid.” The programme sees the businessman visit King Solomon Academy in London, which serves a poor area but has achieved the best GCSE results of any non-selective school in England.
One in five state-funded schools south of the Border is now outside local authority control. Academies receive direct funding from Whitehall and have power over their curriculum, budget and staffing.
Max Haimendorf, King Solomon’s head teacher and an Oxford graduate, told Sir Tom the school was found in 2007 by ambitious business leaders who wanted to do things differently and “eradicate” the attainment gap.
Among the series of innovations adopted were a longer school day, all youngsters learning a musical instrument, students shadowing professionals such as lawyers in the City of London and classrooms being named after the universities teachers attended to help motivate the children.
It often uses the Teach First scheme to recruit staff, which places many of the brightest university graduates in the most challenging schools. However, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs last month that she had been advised to be “cautious” about the scheme.
In his interview with the First Minister at the conclusion of the half-hour programme, Sir Tom told Ms Sturgeon: “It seems to me there are innovations which we don’t have in Scotland. I just wonder why we wouldn’t give our kids a chance to have this.”
The First Minister replied that she had examined the experience of the London Challenge, which helped some inner-city schools in the capital, adding: “I’m not ideological about this and I am absolutely clear.
“If something can be proven to work we should try it … Making sure that our young folk get the best education is the only thing that matters to me and if something can be shown to work in doing that or if something’s worth trying to do that, then I’ll certainly be in the market for it.”