Why are Scottish schools falling behind?

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Research that suggests Scottish schools have fallen behind those in England since devolution is challenging to critics of public service reform.

The research by the Scottish-based Centre for Public Policy for Regions is pretty damning of the political management of schools arguing, firstly, that since devolution Scotland has fallen behind England in terms of secondary school attainment, and, secondly, that not only do Scottish pupils have substantially more spent on them than their English counterparts, but budgets could be substantially reduced without any impact on outcomes.

Scottish schools are not the only example of poor public service performance in devolved administrations. A similar story of higher expenditure but worse outcomes can be told about the gulf between NHS waiting times in Wales and in England.

Given that the Scottish and Welsh Governments have both made much of their rejection of the English model of public service reform, especially its use of greater contestability among providers and choices for patients, the facts offer three different explanations:

1. The English approach to reform is right and the ideological unwillingness of Scotland and Wales to pursue some form of this approach has cost its citizens dear.

2. Scottish and Welsh politicians have chosen different outcomes to those prioritised by the English. While they may be doing worse and costing more in relation to the things English ministers care about – exam performance and waiting lists, for example – they are doing much better in relation to other outcomes.

3. The reason for worse performance in Scotland and Wales since devolution are to do with some other factor than reform.

I won’t pretend that I don’t find the first explanation the most likely. But I am very interested to hear if there are other interpretations.

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