For the past couple of days I have had bad toothache and so, this afternoon, awaiting my emergency dental appointment, I thought I would divert my mind by reading the manifestos of the six parties vying for power in the forthcoming Holyrood election, or at least those parts pertaining to education. This, as it turned out, was a mistake, and the resulting mix of dental pain and politics caused me to reinvent my personal vision of hell, which, previously, had consisted of being forced to listen to old men talking about golf for eternity while being force-fed pickled eggs.
Of course, this election is almost entirely about the constitution; it’s about another referendum and independence. This is the divide among the parties, three on one side and three on the other, and let’s face it, it’s easy that way. All else is toys, as Macbeth (who is not a candidate in the election) once said, or so it at least seems. Now, we can all understand that – however, even if the pro-independence parties have a majority, even if Boris caves in, even if the referendum takes place and even if we vote ‘yes’, it’ll be years and years before we’re ready to sail as an independent nation. It’s not unreasonable to want to know exactly where our schools will be by then. We have a fairly clear idea of where they are just now and while many of our young people are doing fine, the overall trajectory has been gently downhill for some years.
If you too are in the tiny group of citizens who have opened all of these documents, you will have noticed that the Education sections tend to be near the back. And the other thing that you will have noticed is how similar they are. Yes, there are a few differences round the edges – the Greens want to phase out exams (a surefire way of widening the attainment gap); the Liberal Democrats want to pay a premium to teachers who work in disadvantaged areas (tick) and Alba wants to make a bonfire of educational bureaucracy (double tick from me!)
However, there are three recurring themes, none of which, in truth, really addresses the issues at the heart of Scottish education’s current woes. Firstly, there is a competition about recruiting more teachers – 3,000? 3,500? 5,500? Of course, we all know that lots of teachers are leaving the profession, and also that recruitment is particularly difficult in some areas and in some secondary subjects. There’s little discussion about how, exactly, able and committed individuals can be brought into this battered profession; to be fair, the Lib Dems do say that teachers should start on a salary of 30k, but then again they won’t be the ones balancing the budget.
The second idea is that more money should be thrown at closing the poverty-related attainment gap, this, of course, being the SNP’s very laudable flagship educational policy. Now, the pandemic can be blamed in part for this, but everyone knows the attainment gap is, if anything, wider than before. The manifestos, which variously promise huge amounts extra, don’t really suggest what’s going to be done with the extra money, and it’s my hunch most head teachers wouldn’t have much idea either. If the Government’s central aim over the past few years had been to make the trains between Glasgow and Edinburgh go much faster, but they were, in fact, going slower, does it make sense just to chuck more money in that direction, without careful planning and consideration?
Then, of course, there’s the free stuff. Free laptops, free internet connections, free school lunches, free breakfasts, free school uniform. Much of this makes sense, though I still can’t see why high earners should get another universal benefit. But none of it is anything to do with the actual education on offer; it simply means that some children will be able to access it more easily and be properly fed when they do so.
Where’s the vision for change? All the parties conveniently tiptoe round the big issue – which is the failure of Curriculum for Excellence. They await the ‘forthcoming’ OECD report and promise to act on its recommendations; do none of these politicians have any courage? The Greens want to ‘reduce the role of indicators and measures’ in CfE – and do what instead? Have none of these politicians taken on board Scotland’s declining scores in Science and Maths? Labour promises a ‘comprehensive review’ which can mean anything but at least they say there needs to be a big expansion of vocational education in schools which suggests that someone’s foot was on the ball for a bit. Alba sensibly suggests that Scotland needs to start looking at the successful education systems in other countries; I don’t think they’ll find CfE in them. The Tories (and others, less clearly) want an independent school inspectorate again and that is quite essential. But, in essence, there is so little big thinking going on.
Scotland’s pupils, their dedicated and put-upon teachers, and their parents deserve a root and branch examination of our national education system, whether we are moving to independence or not. It’s generally accepted that the SNP hasn’t done well in this area, certainly relative to its comparative success in other areas. I believe that if one of the other parties had seen this open goal and really gone for it, it could have changed the election for them, but no-one’s been brave enough and I can’t really understand why. I’m off to the dentist.