Well Said, Lord Jack!

I grew up in West Lothian and I learned about Scottish politics in the late 60’s and early 70’s at the knee of my father, who was an SNP activist throughout his adult life. I can remember my dad getting quite emotional when the SNP held their deposit in a by-election (Glasgow Gorbals?) in the 60’s, and the only time I saw my mother drunk was when Winnie Ewing won Hamilton – she sat on the grass in the garden singing ‘The Party’s Over’, when, in fact, the Party had just begun. Back then, voting SNP was considered well….unusual…and here I was being parented by two such voters, out of the maybe 10%, if that, who voted that way across Scotland then. Changed days, which sadly came a bit too late for Mum and Dad.

In West Lothian, in those days, the Tories were a bit of a distant irrelevance, though often very pleasant to talk to;  the true enemy was the Labour Party. My dad quite admired Harold Wilson, and, later, had a lot of time for John Smith, but otherwise the Labour Party, that vast hegemony which ruled Scottish politics at every level for so long was ‘a shower’. So I fear that my father will be birling in his grave when I say, through very slightly gritted teeth, a few nice things about Jack McConnell. For it is he, who, last week, said that we needed a radical new change in Scottish education, and he is quite right. In fact, in an article in ‘The Times’ he didn’t put a foot wrong, and I want to draw attention here in the Scottish press to two things he said in particular.

Firstly, and undeniably, there has to be a big shake up of the curriculum; we have to decide what it is we want our young people to be being taught in the actually quite limited time they are in school. The so-called ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ isn’t, as so many people have pointed out, actually a curriculum at all. It’s a set of fairly vague educational ideas, which point towards some uncertain outcomes, and it’s been in place for a while now, and it isn’t working. Young people in Scotland don’t do as well in lots of areas as they used to, both compared with their predecessors in Scottish schools, and compared with their colleagues in schools abroad. My goodness, they are in decline even relative to England, which itself is in some educational hot water. Lord McConnell correctly points to the need for the acquisition of knowledge to be central to our education – in the past such a request would simply have been seen as a truism: of course kids go to school to acquire knowledge, as in ‘What did you learn in school today?’! These days, the balance has swung so much towards the importance of skills that we have forgotten that we need to know stuff in order to put skills into practice. He also calls for ‘proof of attainment’ and it’s true – the answer to failings in academic standards has simply been to measure differently, if at all.

Lord McConnell also returns to the crucial issue of the retention of teachers – as much, I think, an issue about their perceived status as about pay and conditions, and makes concrete suggestions for ways in which we could move forward with the Government’s extremely laudable aim of closing the poverty-related attainment gap, something which has been dealt a particularly grievous blow by COVID. All of these things are, of course, underpinned by the need for constant, high level scrutiny by the inspectorate and this is where another problem lies.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools (Scotland) used to be an independent entity, and now it isn’t – it is, in effect, a branch of that great monolith, Education Scotland, which, like the monolith in Utah recently, could do with suddenly disappearing. Lord McConnell is not the first Scottish politician to point how weird this is – indeed it was a plank of the Scottish Tories’ manifesto at the last Scottish election, so he may have discussed this over a buttered crumpet in the tearoom at the House of Lords with Baroness Davidson. They are both, of course, absolutely right – how can the inspectors provide independent scrutiny when they are firmly placed inside the tent (actually more of a concrete silo) of Education Scotland? I can tell you – the inspectors don’t like it much. It used to be the case that they went round schools to see if Scottish educational policy was working; now it would appear that they go round schools to make sure that Scottish educational policy is being implemented correctly, which is not at all the same thing. Let’s imagine (quite topically in Edinburgh) that the Scottish Government decided that every child in Primary School had to learn Gaelic. The job of the inspectors would now be to ensure that that was happening in every school and to judge the quality of the teaching, rather than, additionally, to test the water of whether it’s a good idea at all. Imagine you wanted to make a complaint about the police and the relevant office was inside the police station – we would all think that was…troubling.

So the spirit of my father notwithstanding, I say well done to Lord Jack for speaking out. Independence is a gale blowing heavily through Scotland this winter; our children, the ones who face most acutely the golden possibilities and the possible dangers of a new Scottish nation, deserve to know what education will be like in the new country and so do their parents, the voters. Maybe the Labour Party needs to pick up this baton from their former First Minister, now that they are the ones in danger of gaining only 10% of the vote.


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