The Scottish school year, like the Holyrood election campaign, is limping to a close. Children will end the 2020/21 session in a state of bewilderment, their education hugely disrupted by Covid. They have had wildly varying experiences of home-schooling and have been denied much of the rich academic and social exposure that should form them not just as students, but as people too.
This is true of most countries, of course. But not many are about to hold an election that is likely to be definitive for their country’s long-term future. And whether Scotland ultimately decides to stay in or leave the UK, its education system will be central to its prospects in the coming decades.
It would be nice to say that the past few weeks have involved a robust debate on education, of competing visions tested in the heat of battle. Or that worried families and nervous employers have watched on as political leaders set out compelling and innovative policies that wouldn’t just return schooling to something like normal, but would enable it to take a much-needed leap forward.
But, this being Scotland, that was never going to be the case. Instead, the politicians have been wrestling in the constitutional swamp, seeking whatever advantage might be gained from their position on a second independence referendum, and avoiding the much trickier challenge of fixing an education system that has long since lost its formidable lustre.
Part of the reason for this is that any education reform worth its name is hard and bruising. It requires governments and ministers with the guts to take on and defeat the conservative and protectionist vested interests of the education establishment. It means putting children and parents first, certainly before their own careers and an easier life. Some of the most impressive achievements at Westminster in recent decades have involved radical school reform, but that has required an almost unbroken chain of determined and like-minded politicians, from Kenneth Baker to Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis, to Michael Gove and Nick Gibb.
At Holyrood, education secretaries have come and gone without leaving much of a mark on the performance of the education system. Relative decline has been met with obfuscation and denial, withdrawal from awkward international comparator surveys and a poverty of ambition.
This failure to grasp the scale of the reform that’s needed has encompassed the entirety of devolution’s first two decades. One might wonder what else the Scottish parliament has been doing over that long period – what it felt its priorities were if not fixing the most important policy area in its remit. Ten years ago my think tank, Reform Scotland, sought to address this by setting up the Commission on School Reform (CSR), an apolitical, non-partisan group of education experts who have since pursued an evidence and data-led agenda that seeks to shape and support the necessary steps.
With, I’m sorry to say, limited success. The education establishment has dug in, treating reformers with bad faith, tossing around baseless accusations of ideological bias and covering backsides. This world-view ensures nothing ever gets done. Consequently, the debate around Scottish education desperately needs a reset, a return to first principles, an injection of humility and an open mind. If a destructive pandemic isn’t the moment for that, what is?
On 22 April the Commission published “An Education Manifesto for 2021 and Beyond”, a broad-ranging and, at times, provocative menu of policy ideas. The most eye-catching is a proposal to abolish Education Scotland, the devolved government’s executive agency, which has wholly failed to rise to the challenge of the past, difficult year.
Education Scotland was set up in 2010 by the SNP administration, absorbing the responsibilities of the schools inspectorate and taking control of the curriculum. It has proved faceless, lethargic and allergic to meaningful change, and in the past year especially, it has been posted missing in action. It has overseen the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence, which has been close to disastrous, and has shrunk from further innovation. “The attempt to combine inspection, policy development and support for teachers in a single agency has palpably failed,” said CSR chair Keir Bloomer. “Education Scotland is not fit for purpose. New and more effective arrangements are urgently needed.”
Nicola Sturgeon began her time as First Minister insisting education would be her main priority and that she would seek to close the attainment gap between high- and low-performing pupils. There is little evidence that this has been achieved. As Bloomer puts it: “Scottish school education is coasting. It lacks creativity and it lacks the capacity for innovation. We should not disparage our schooling for poor quality, but nor should we deceive ourselves into believing that it is world-leading. It is not. If we want to be proud of our schooling system, and to be able to credibly claim it to be world leading, we need seismic change.”
Among the commission’s other proposals are increased school autonomy, with heads empowered to take critical decisions; more professional development for heads and teachers to ensure evolution of thought and capability, and a willingness to challenge authority; greater diversity in the provision of schooling, enabling educational entrepreneurs to pilot vocational programmes that go beyond the current stifling uniformity of the comprehensive system; and a determined programme of educational recovery following the pandemic, with the establishment of homework clubs and Saturday clubs and additional time in school for those children who need it. The school year should be rethought to create a more balanced pattern of holidays, international comparator surveys should be rejoined, and a body similar to the Office for National Statistics should be established to collect and analyse educational data.
The contrast between this and the party manifestos is stark. The latter offer very little on systemic change and a great deal of that Scottish political staple: free stuff – school meals, computers, even bikes. More teachers, too. There is nothing wrong with any of this – and perhaps much to commend – but it is superficial and does not tackle the root causes of the education system’s decline.
It would take a brave minister to admit the truth about the condition of Scottish education, and courage is a quality that is in short supply. It is, of course, easier to rehearse the same old arguments about independence, to rile up the fanbase and to promise that leaving the UK would solve the nation’s many deep-seated problems. It is not Scotland’s children who need to grow up.
[see also: Podcast: the art of Scottish independence]