Education Education Education

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.


3 thoughts on “Education Education Education

  1. Excellent. Here’s the thing though, most people in Scotland don’t get small ‘c’ conservatism and for them, like me, ‘Tory’ and ‘Toryism’ are dirty words- the truth is that Thatcher’s policies poisoned the well not just for a generation but for future generations in Scotland. Entire communities being dragged into unemployment and subsequent decline into a non-working class. Its time for the conservatives in Scotland to reject the antiquated term Tory forever associated with Thatcher and send a strong message that conservatism and unionism is an option for all of the electorate.

  2. Finally, a reasoned discussion. I educated my young people privately, my choice but a difficult one. A Grammar School pupil myself, from a very ordinary background, I know and value education, politics really muddies the waters in this arena, let the schools get on with education.

  3. Interesting. I am not ideologically wedded to the notion of local authority control of education. The protests of teaching unions and other vested interests in regard to the issue, and indeed just about any educational reform, leave me cold.

    I am very much of the opinion that “whatever works” in the delivery of education is what should be put in place. There is encouraging evidence that academy schools and free schools might work, and it is important that Scottish policy develops in such a way as takes account of the lessons (good and bad) of our neighbour’s experience.

    However, if I were concerned to address poor performance in schools, I would target my attentions at the following, which in my view represent far greater inhibitors to improved performance:

    (1) funding for state education. There is no question that local authorities face an incredibly challenging fiscal future. The SNP has had complete control of local taxation for nigh on 9 years. A perpetual council tax freeze is not sustainable in the long term, in consideration of the demographic pressures on entitlement driven expenditure and on statutorily required services. The adoption of this approach betrays a trepidation and paucity of ideas unbecoming of the dominant party in any national polity. There is nothing in the above piece regarding how schools could be better funded by the state, as opposed to better managed in the generality.

    (2) the requirement of the state to fund separate religious schools to an extraordinarily disproportionate extent. This results in a duplication of effort which tends to absurd results; it is an historical anachronism and a waste of money. That it continues absent meaningful political challenge is a pander to special interests. There are recent examples of joint campus developments in the primary sector with segregated playgrounds and PE facilities. Clearly this limits the potential of the facility to meet the educational needs of the students. There is less space for football or hockey pitches, running tracks, swimming pools, libraries, concert halls. I am clear in my head that the foregoing is not an acceptable price to pay to ensure that parents choosing to educate their children in the state system may as a matter of right direct the education authority that accommodation be managed on a day to day basis to ensure that their children encounter others of a different religious background as infrequently as possible. In the secondary sector, the effects on curricular choice are equally tragic. There is less economy of scale to afford the opportunity to secure greater choice in modern languages, expressive arts, physical education (when we are faced with an obesity pandemic) and social sciences. The SNP’s obsession with teacher numbers further erodes autonomy for local authorities to fund delivery of non teaching resources in schools (and out with schools). I am fearful of the prospects for learning assistance and adult literacy in many local authority budgets. In the context of our early year’s literacy performance that is supremely unfortunate, especially when early intervention is key to improving later outcomes and to tackling poverty. I am less confident than ever that the oft identified failure of schools to secure the delivery of additional support to the particularly gifted (whose statutory right to a co-ordinated multi agency support plan is largely ignored) will be remedied.

    This is all desperately sad, and much of it is avoidable. It is also to say nothing of the effect the separation has had, and will continue to have, on career prospects of certain teachers in certain schools and subjects depending upon their religion.

    Perhaps the Tory manifesto will address these substantive issues. I appreciate that the article does not suggest free schools/academies are a silver bullet and I look forward to further debate in the months ahead . However, absent proposals on them, in my opinion anyone running on an education reform ticket will effectively be running for president of Disney by promising to fix the rides at EPCOT.

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