Lessons from Success and Failure in Scotland’s Education System

Keir Bloomer

For five years, between 2014 and 2019, an unusual – and highly successful – experimental school operated in Glasgow’s South Side. Newlands Junior College (NJC) was the brainchild of the well-known entrepreneur, Jim McColl. It aimed to meet the needs of young people who had disengaged from mainstream secondary education and whose future prospects looked bleak.

It is known that fairly consistently every year around 50% of Scottish statutory school leavers, those who leave at age 16 move onto a job, apprenticeship or further education. 30% move on to training of some kind. The last 20%, including the cohort described above, those of most concern, are completely lost. And that 20% is not spread evenly across Scotland, we see a concentration in our areas of multiple deprivation.

Literature and legend often feature highly successful individuals who were failures at school. The reality is that such people are few and the extent of their school failure is often overstated. In the case of the young people enrolled in NJC, their former schools estimated their chances of gaining a ‘positive destination’ to be around 1 in 4. The overwhelming probability is that they would gain no qualifications or, at best, a smattering of passes at the lowest level of recognised national award.

Positive destination is the term used by the Scottish Government to indicate that a school leaver has gone on to a further stage of education or into an apprenticeship or employment. The definition is broad and includes, for example, very short training experiences and dead-end jobs that few neutral observers would consider very positive. School leavers of the kind who made up the NJC student body seldom attain a genuinely positive destination. Insecure, low-paid work is often the best they can hope for.

This is obviously a personal tragedy but it is also a serious economic and social problem. Modern economies treat failure harshly. Poverty is increasing. The gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is widening. Opportunities to catch up are few and diminishing. The unsuccessful school leaver is much more likely to spend adult life as a benefit recipient than a tax-payer.

Almost all social ills are strongly correlated with each other. To be poor is often to be in ill health. Natural health problems may well be accentuated by substance abuse. Contact with the criminal justice system is likely to follow. And so on.

Technically, NJC was a school. It catered for young people below the age at which they could leave school. However, it did not look like a school or feel like one. It occupied premises on an industrial site and had much of the appearance of a workplace. At the same time, it was small and informal.

It had one other feature which made it almost unique. It could be described as a public/private partnership. A very significant part of its costs were met by McColl’s company, Clyde Blowers and its founding partners. There were other substantial private backers. At the same time, around a third of the costs were met by public funds, both from the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council. Such an arrangement is practically unknown in the school sector.

The public thus had a stake in NJC. Experiments may succeed or fail. Most fall somewhere between the two. The public can legitimately expect that, whatever the outcome, lessons will be drawn from the experience. In this case, that expectation has not been fulfilled.

In the course of its brief existence, NJC took in 134 young people. Their former schools had few expectations for their futures. When the junior college closed in 2019, 26 students were well short of the statutory leaving age of 16 and were returned to Glasgow schools. Their post-school destinations are unknown and, in any event, owe more to their school experience than their relatively brief experience of NJC. Almost all – 82 out of 89, or 92% – of those who completed their courses at NJC went on to positive destinations; almost all to apprenticeships or further education. 19 failed to attend, moved back to school or, for other reasons, did not complete their courses.

What lessons can be learned from this outstanding level of success? There are many but these are the most important. First and most vital; a small and intimate scale combined with a strong team of trusted adults created the kind of ethos in which positive relationships developed and flourished. The partnership with City of Glasgow College and some business partners created a customised and high quality vocational strand in the curriculum. A focus on personal development transformed attitudes and made of young people apparently headed for failure, the kind of people who can succeed. Other factors such as good meals and transport played a part.

Unfortunately, there is another lesson to be learned. After less than five years, Newlands closed. The public/private partnership disintegrated. The city council took back the young people and claimed to be learning from the NJC experience.

Unfortunately, they failed to learn the most basic lesson. Success depends on cultivating strong relationships above all. With these young people, that cannot be achieved in a school catering for many hundreds.

This lesson can be viewed in another way. Scottish school education has strengths but there are growing concerns about its weaknesses. It needs to be enterprising and innovative. One lesson of NJC, however, is that, even when faced with clear evidence of what works, it does not innovate but reverts to type, even when government has been enthusiastically supportive of the experiment.

What is it about the way that Scottish education is managed and about its culture that inhibits change? Unless that question is honestly addressed and remedies are found, an important section of young Scots will continue to be failed with all the personal and social consequences described earlier.

Dr Keir Bloomer is an independent education consultant, and chair of Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform.

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