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Standards are falling, and not just among those at schools in poorer areas

The complaint from Dundee University about the low standards attained by prospective students is a reminder of the educational issues which should be under anxious discussion in Scotland ("University hits out at poor learning amid access row", The Herald, November 22).

Dundee University deserves all credit for its enlightened efforts to enrol students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but its report highlights the fact that standards are falling, and not only among those who attend schools in poorer areas.

This is a fact which durst not speak its name, which emerges into public view only occasionally but is known and acknowledged in school staff rooms, in college coffee rooms and in university common rooms. Regrettably it has not reached the level where it arouses interest among the political class. Rather than focusing on how the president of some college behaved in a meeting with the Education Secretary, or with some invented dispute between colleges and universities for funding, the focus of educational debate should be squarely on the standards expected of students when they emerge with certificates at the end of their schooling.

And we have a problem here, acknowledged by educators and denied by educationalists, one that will cause difficulties for the country in the future, whether Scotland becomes an independent state or remains devolved. Bluntly, our students are badly served by the education system, standards are falling and we risk struggling to make our way in the new, knowledge-based economic order.

The question of standards is not an area where statistics are particularly helpful. Grades achieved in final exams are no guide, but the experience and views of people involved in education are. Dundee University is not the only institution which has found it necessary to establish remedial courses, whatever name they go under. Maybe the Scottish Government, or some enterprising education journalist, could conduct a survey to discover how many tertiary institutions have found such courses an indispensable preliminary to getting on with conducting education at the level appropriate to them.

Any such survey should base itself on the experience of teachers. I have been teaching in Australia and Poland in recent times. The experience in Poland was especially enlightening, or concerning. It makes no sense to say their students are more gifted or more intelligent than their Scottish counterparts, but the level of knowledge they are expected to acquire in many fields is higher than we currently expect. We are falling behind.

I doubt if the analysis offered by Dundee University, reduced subject choice, has aggravated the problem. It may even be that excessive, inappropriate choice at the wrong level had created problems, but we have a problem we must face up to. Can I suggest Mike Russell institutes a comparative examination of educational standards?

Joseph Farrell,

Professor Emeritus, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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