Opening the first debate of the year in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister said yesterday that she wanted “a great, ambitious and thriving debate in Scotland about how we build” and how we “realise the full potential of our nation”. I agree with her. In her speech Nicola Sturgeon boasted of having “helped to create a flourishing of democratic debate and … renewed national confidence” in Scotland. I hope she is right about that, too. I hope that, in the four months between now and the Scottish Parliamentary election on 5 May, we do indeed have the “national confidence” to say that, while twenty-first century Scotland is a wonderful place to live and work, as a nation we are getting some things very wrong indeed. Top of that list is education.
It’s easy to play the blame game, and too many MSPs taking part in yesterday’s new year debate did just that. Labour’s Kezia Dugdale and Iain Gray focused, as they almost always do, on the SNP’s failings: that instead of cutting class sizes the SNP have cut teacher numbers; that college places have been slashed by 140,000; that student debt has doubled; and that standards in literacy and numeracy in Scotland’s classrooms are falling. All true. All familiar. And altogether not good enough.
But schools in Glasgow are not run by the SNP. They are run by a City Council that has been dominated by the Scottish Labour party for decade upon decade. And, with painfully few exceptions, they are simply not good enough. This is not the fault of the teachers and headteachers who work in them. If you want to play the blame game, responsibility rests with what the First Minister would call the nation. That is to say, it lies with us, with Scotland, with the way we run and manage our schools.
Education is in my blood. My parents were schoolteachers who devoted their careers to state primary and secondary education. For the past 25 years I’ve been employed in higher education. And my four children are at the beginning of their own education: two in nursery and two in primary school (all of them in the state sector.) Yesterday, the Scottish Conservatives published a short paper setting out three “stepping stones” to improved education in Scotland — three steps that could be taken right now. The first, and by far the most important, is to empower schools: to give them greater autonomy over budgets and recruitment, to give them choices over which examination systems to use, and to give them more freedom over the day-to-day management of the school. This is desperately needed, not only in Glasgow but across Scotland.
It’s been happening south of the border, and it’s having great results. Started by New Labour and accelerated by Conservative education secretaries Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, “academy schools” are being given autonomy from the local education authorities that previously held them back and mismanaged them. Ofsted and other independent evidence shows how this is driving up standards and — crucially — also helping to close the attainment gap between richer and poorer families.
It is a core belief of modern Toryism that power should be driven down to communities, not hoarded at the top. We see this in action in the creation of the “Northern powerhouse” in Greater Manchester and we see it in action, too, in academy schools. Who knows best what a school needs? The school itself knows best: the headteacher who runs it, the teachers who work in it, and the parents whose children the school is for. Government does not know best, neither Scottish Government in Holyrood nor the local authority in City Chambers. Schools that are freed and given autonomy from government are schools that are empowered to develop for themselves paths to success. Not for their own sake, but for the sake of the children.
There is a simple way of testing the success of a nation’s schooling: no family in Scotland should feel compelled to shell out for a private education or for a more expensive house in a different catchment area in order to find a great school for their children. Scotland fails that test miserably.
I’m sure the First Minister knows this and I’ve little doubt that she’s as unhappy about it as I am. But, for her, it’s decision time. In her speech yesterday in the Scottish Parliament she said that in Scotland “we have the potential to become a world leader in education”. Again, I agree: clearly, we do. But we will not come close to realising that potential for as long as we continue to allow our schools to be held back by under-performing local authorities. It is time to set schools free. On its own this will not be sufficient to secure a world-class education for all our children, but it is a necessary first step. Will the SNP join the Conservatives in taking it?
Closing yesterday’s Holyrood debate the Deputy First Minister John Swinney took a swipe at the Labour MSPs who could think of nothing more to say than that the SNP are a shower whose record on education is but a catalogue of broken promises. “Muckle guid” does that style of Opposition do. It’s easy to play the blame game, but it’s not what Scotland needs. What Scotland needs is the self-confidence to admit that as a nation we’ve got some things wrong and that radical solutions are needed to put them right. Muckle guid will it do Scotland’s schoolchildren if we fail to learn that lesson now.