Until I retired, I spent my whole life, from the age of five, in education. I went to school for 13 years, straight to university, and from there on to Moray House to teacher train. Things were easier for young teachers then (1980) and I was offered a few jobs. I took one, then another, and so on until I ended up, by a rather convoluted process, as a Head. That was my career, and, among many other things, it meant that, man and boy, I always had the whole summer off (fab); it meant I spent my whole working life among young people – which I think is good for you, no matter how many people have said ‘You’re a teacher? Oh, I could never do that…’; and, most profoundly, it made me assume that, like my colleagues and I, everybody out there thought that education really mattered.
I’m sorry, now that we are in this brave new year, to drag this fact screaming out of Scotland’s collective psyche, but we had a general election in December. Now, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you have to admit that education did not really figure large in anyone’s election manifesto. I’m sure it was hiding in them somewhere but was there really any chat about it going on? In the UK, there were the two recurring themes – “Get Brexit Done” and “You Can’t Sell Our NHS”; in Scotland, the demand for a post-Brexit IndyRef 2 joined the chorus. Whatever the outcomes, I can’t really remember anyone suggesting that we should be talking about schools, with the slightly odd exception of the discussion, in England and Wales, of whether OFSTED should be scrapped. In the past, education was more of an electoral issue – Tony Blair, in 2001, said ‘Our top priority was, and always will be education, education, education’ – whose ‘top priority’ was it this time round?
And yet for decades, from school debates to the highest reaches of government (wherever they actually are now) decent people have talked about the need to spend more money on ‘hospitals and schools’ – it’s a cliché, almost one word ‘we need to pour money into huspitalznskools’. Actually, though, I have started to realise that most people are much more bothered about the NHS and hospitals and health than they are about schools. I’m not sure that should come as too much of a surprise. Children go to schools, and they can’t vote. Adults have been to school, and are not going again. Childless people have no stake, or so it would superficially seem. Really the only group of people actually invested in education at any one time are people with children at school, and by the time your kids are 14 or so, there isn’t much point in agitating too much, because change takes time, and they’ll be away from the school by the time the revolution has been effected.
Whereas, health?! We’re all going to be ill, or in an accident, or have a sick child. It could be in 2035 or it could be tonight. As Philip Larkin said in his great poem, ‘Ambulances’, ‘all streets in time are visited’: one day it’ll be you. So you don’t have to have a very cynical view of human nature to see why people might be a whole lot more worried about health than they are about education. OK, both these issues are devolved to the Scottish government, and this was a Westminster election, but it still makes you think.
I think in 2020, there needs to begin a whole new review of the education provision in Scotland’s schools, because there’s only a certain time that the highly dedicated professionals teaching and running them can keep paddling this very deep water, as the tide pushes them back. Another ghastly memory from 2019 was the publication of the results of the 2018 PISA survey. Reading was a bit better – back to the level it was in 2012 (does that sound like much to boast about?) but the results in Maths and Science were the worst results that Scotland’s had since we started taking part 20 years ago. Nearly three thousand Scottish pupils took part in tests sat by 600,000 pupils worldwide. Now, I was a teacher of English, so I am always happy to see our young people reading better, but, I have to say it – if a nation’s young people are getting worse at their sums and their science, it spells disaster for our economy in the medium term.
So, we have to start really thinking about what it is we want to achieve in our schools. I have a hunch that the Scottish government doesn’t want to rock the educational boat too much as we press forward towards possible independence, but surely all of us – young people, parents, teachers and yes, the grandparents, the childless, people who hated their own schooling, all those who don’t have a stake in today’s schools and don’t really know what’s going on in them – don’t we all need to know that there’s a chance for Scotland to have a great education system again, whether we are independent or not, and don’t we have to start thinking about what that might look like?