How the SNP is using Brexit to distract from Scotland’s education crisis

Scotland’s schoolchildren are being ill-served by politicians who seem to shy away from evidence and data.

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The Brexit cloud has begun to blot out other aspects of policy in Scotland, just as it has at Westminster.

Holyrood lawyers have been tied up preparing for no-deal and rewriting past legislation — a hugely time-consuming exercise based on a what-if. The SNP independence machine, meanwhile, is cranking up to full gear, consuming ministerial and spad time.

The Scottish Conservatives, preparing a policy blitz ahead of the 2021 devolved election aimed at exposing the SNP’s weaknesses over 12 years in government, are caught in a holding pattern. There’s Brexit, and its impact on the party’s vote in a nation that voted overwhelmingly to Remain; and there’s the looming reality of prime minister Boris Johnson — gloom has descended on a group of people who until earlier this year were optimistic about their chances of unseating Nicola Sturgeon. There is little hope in Tory hearts that Johnson could be anything but a negative among Scottish voters, and there is, really, nothing they can do about that.

Scottish Labour, already trailing in third place and making little impact on the national conversation, have committed to a second Brexit referendum but are hamstrung by Jeremy Corbyn’s ongoing refusal to do the same in London. 

In short, Scottish politics is being dominated by decisions taken in England by English politicians on behalf of English voters.

The odd move is still being made, of course. The SNP this week announced a plan to use recently devolved social security powers to introduce the Scottish Child Payment to provide support for families on lower incomes. The £10-a-week payment will begin for children under six in 2021, and by 2022 (after the election, it’s worth noting), for all others. The move has been welcomed by anti-poverty groups.

But the exception proves the rule, and the rule is that Brexit rules.

A good crisis should never be allowed to go to waste. And it may be with this in mind that education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney announced this week that a proposed education reform bill has been permanently shelved, to the dismay of those who see Scotland’s schools as desperately in need of some stiff government resolve.

The bill, the main measure of which would have devolved greater powers to headteachers, allowing more autonomy in the way schools are run, was paused late last year as the SNP faced a wall of opposition from the Scottish education establishment. That establishment still wields great power north of the border, and has successfully resisted previous attempts to introduce diversity and innovation into the system.

The SNP is now committed to a “collaborative approach” under which local authorities have agreed to voluntarily begin the process of ceding autonomy, rather than face the force of legislation. Swinney insists “significant progress” has been made already, and that a bill is no longer necessary. “Fast-tracking our education reforms was intended to give schools and teachers more control, quicker than could be achieved through legislation and it is clear to me we have achieved this,” he said.

The problem is plain, though: challenged by political opponents to produce evidence of this progress, the educationsSecretary was unable to produce any. Indeed, in my conversations in recent months with reform-minded educationalists there has been little sign that the voluntary method is bearing much fruit. Rhetoric, as in so much of modern politics, seems to be winning over reality.

In their defence, the SNP point to the publication of a Headteachers’ Charter, which sets out the terms in which heads will have increased control over the curriculum, staffing and budgets. There are also guidelines for councils. But again, these are voluntary, and the culture in education circles remains one of a centralised, one-fits-all approach.

Scottish education seems trapped in a fantasyland. There are problems with teacher recruitment and subject choice, and confusion over both the philosophy and practice behind changes to the senior phase in secondary schools. In the absence of hard data to show reforms are working, ministers provide only assertion and insist it is all a work in progress. The suspicion is that they want to avoid evidence-based accountability until after the next Holyrood election.

The SNP has further avoided the inconvenience of critical data by pulling Scotland out of international studies that compare performance across different countries.

However, later this year, PISA will produce the results of its three-yearly survey of international performance in reading, maths and science, which includes Scotland. Over half a million 15-year-olds from 80 countries took the test last year, with the findings due on 3 December. In the last survey, Scotland showed a sharp dip in performance — another fall will be hard for the SNP to justify or defend, and would give real ammunition to its political opponents.

Perhaps the threat and impact of Brexit will cloud out even this important moment. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Scotland’s schoolchildren are being ill-served by politicians who seem to shy away from evidence and data, or to bend it to their own ends. December will provide an opportunity for a proper debate and the chance to hold power to account. Let’s hope we take it.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).