Around a hundred years ago, H G Wells wrote this: ‘Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe’. Now I doubt if old HG – dead, out of fashion, the wrong kind of progressive and English to boot, was at the forefront of the First Minister’s mind when she rose to present her new Programme for Government, but, speaking from beyond the grave through me, his spiritual medium, I can tell her that HG is not very impressed. The pandemic, he’s telling me, has been a catastrophe, not easily predicted or dealt with; in Scotland, the state of education may be looming up as the next one.
The new Programme for Government, loosely based on the SNP’s successful election manifesto, with an extra dash of crème de menthe from the new chaps in the team (well, the sort of team), was called ‘A Fairer, Greener Scotland’ and indeed there was a great deal about fairness and greenness in it. What was distinctly lacking in my reading of the document were the kind of radical policies – the vision – necessary to take on the current malaise in Scotland’s schools. As usual, there was a far greater clarity on issues to do with health and the environment, and I can’t be alone in thinking that education does sometimes seem to be the poor relation up in the attic, even now, when detailed studies worldwide suggest that the pandemic will have left school students between three and six months behind in their educational progress; of course, the most capable, best resourced kids will be the least damaged – thus – and no-one can really blame the government for this – the attainment gap will have widened.
The document that Nicola Sturgeon introduced last week does have a few educational commitments, and HG Wells is telling me that, in the interests of fairness, they should be looked at. The first is a reiteration of the manifesto promise to bring in 3,500 new teachers and 500 more classroom assistants. Fine, but as the old cookery book says, first catch your rabbit. Where are these teachers to come from – because they aren’t all in training now – but more to the point, what is it that they are going to do? Teachers in Scotland are – broad brush – fairly worn down, even at the start of the new session, with the pandemic simply being another very stressful factor; things have been tough for a very long time. Yes, a big push to bring in new staff could reduce class sizes (always a big political tick) and it could – very importantly – lead to more useful teaching when staff are absent and have to be covered. But really, what they will be delivering is likely to be more of same; yes, having a few more colleagues in every school might improve teachers’ mental health and help with crisis management, but is it really going to drive up educational standards?
This theoretical teacher recruitment is part of a proposed billion pounds’ worth of new spending and again, the key objective is a reduction in the poverty-related attainment gap. So there’s going to be a lot more of what we know as Pupil Equity Funding, money specifically channelled into schools to help Head Teachers and their colleagues devise strategies for closing the gap. There is also going to be a ‘refresh’ of the Pupil Attainment Challenge, the strategy unveiled in 2015, again with a central purpose of closing the gap. I have always said that this is a commendable policy; but as educational attainment, particularly in Maths and Sciences, falls across the board, it cannot be the only policy, particularly since – even pre-Covid – there didn’t seem to be much progress.
So, in essence, Scottish schools and their hard-working and dedicated teachers started the new session led by an educational establishment that just wants more of same. Yes, there is a promise to ‘work to implement the OECD recommendations on assessment and the curriculum’, but I doubt if actual teachers in actual school classrooms are holding their breaths.
What is necessary is an improvement in the academic achievement of all young Scots; that seems to me to be their right, and the purpose of an education system. The attainment gap – and yes, it’s a scourge and it needs sorted – is one of the balls in the air, and it’s an issue that is not only the concern of the world of education, since poverty is at its root. The Scottish Government, particularly the Cabinet Secretary for Education, need to be thinking much more widely – what is it we want for our young people? The answer to that must lie in higher academic standards, plus a much greater array of post 16 (even post 14) pathways. Further, how should we organise the structures of Scottish education – isn’t it time to devolve more individual power to schools and their Heads? What we’re being offered is essentially more cooks to make the same soup. The education bits in the new document come in a section called ‘Create A Land Of Opportunity’. HG Wells, I should say, doesn’t much like the overuse of the capital letter. I’m not much bothered by that, but there’s nothing in this document to make me think that, in terms of educational provision, our young people can look forward to that Land, whether we have reached independence or not. It’s time for some blue sky thinking or…well…more realistically, some thinking that extends beyond the ceiling of Education Scotland.