Education is no Football

Today’s Hootsmon features Alan Massie gaunin’ his dinger that the “SNP’s failure on schools is a dereliction of duty”. The seems a pretty ringing condemnation, yet reading the article, it is hedged around with caveats and conditions—“the SNP inherited Curriculum for Excellence”; “there are many good schools and good teachers in Scotland, and some at least of our universities maintain very high standards” and the like.

However much I struggle with his patrician Tory views, Alan Massie is a respected, articulate member of the media in Scotland and roams far beyond politics in his many writings. As those views have been solid since Adam was a boy, his articulation of them demands respectful hearing, even when a whiff of fire and brimstone in any critique to do with the SNP are part of the package.

I would normally pick holes or attempt to outflank his thesis, but here I take exception to his whole premise—that Scottish education is in a parlous state and that the SNP has sat on its hands in the face of such catastrophe. Despite his long tenure as a pundit, his own education of Drumtochty, on to Glenalmond, then topped off by Oxbridge is hardly mainstream anywhere—most certainly not in Scotland. Nonetheless, I do grant that he pays close attention to educational matters and generally writes on them well, as in:

“Too many leave school barely literate, barely numerate, and ill-equipped for adult life. Too many are, as it were, programmed for failure, doomed to unemployment or, at best, to low-skill employment. Many are, in the view of employers, unemployable. They are the casualties of an education system mired in complacency.”

Up to that last sentence, I was with him. But such blanket declarations make education into an endless game of political football: they are not helpful. Domination of Scottish school philosophy for decades by Fabian principles of equality and inclusion blunted much of the edge our schools once had. By 2002, the McCrone agreement sought to restore prestige and initiative to a demotivated cadre of teachers.

But McConnell’s approach of throwing money at a problem did not succeed. Decades of defensive thinking by teachers’ unions has kept a ‘work-to-rule’ principle going. Many teachers declined to take an interest in their charges out-with the hours for which they were contracted. School trips, out-of-hours activities, even sports suffered as a result. Mr Massie says little about these circumstances and how we got where we are.

A secondary effect has been the gratuitous drive by successive governments to drive up the number of graduates, with scant thought for either the disciplines involved or what such highly educated people would actually do for a living. Like apprenticeships for all, a degree for all is simply bodyswerving the problem for a year or so. And, anyway, student life is hardly the best training for successful business.

The corollary was that vocation education was viewed as second-rate, a consolation prize for thickies. Maybe Mr Massie is handy with jig-saw or welding torch but I doubt it. And ask any householder and they will tell you that there is a dearth of good plumbers or mechanics or roofers, etc. The country has become fixated on the idea that people with five highers are better than those with one. A brief census of your friends tells you this is mince. But parents and teachers have been jointly driving this agenda since the sixties.

This unhappy joint conspiracy among governments, teachers and parents has done the country no good, with, as Mr Massie rightly points out, “Too many programmed for failure, doomed to unemployment or low-skill employment.” Right on, brother; it’s a shameful waste of young energy and talent. But the fix is not in the make-work post-school wheezes emanating from Tories and Labour alike. That’s like treating rickets with elastoplasts: not just wrong but counterproductive in raising false hope.

The SNP started off in 2007 saying that class sizes were important, especially in early years. They are. Unfortunately, Labour has griped monotonically about teacher numbers, promised apprenticeships to everyone and pretty much ignored everything else. They have also used control of the few (large) councils they have to fire many teachers and thereby save budgets, while supplying their MSP colleagues with more gripewater.

Look at what the SNP HAS done, Mr Massie. Take my own council of East Lothian. Teacher numbers are down slightly, but then so are pupil numbers, the recession having cut down numbers moving to the county. Bottom line is that most P1-P3 children are in smaller classes. In addition to that, schools in the low-performing areas have been given extra teachers to work with the infants in those classes. Also, Place2Be has been brought in to smooth social stresses and much effort is made to ensure joined-up thinking with the rest of the council, most especially children’s services. Results can only be evaluated in a decade when those children move from school into the world.

For there are two dicta that I and my colleagues believe apply here: 1) “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man” and; 2) “A school may teach a child but it takes a village to raise one”. Just as the family is an essential background and vehicle for the successful education of most children, so surrounding neighbours, through their guidance, actions and culture complete the development. To approach the complex process of education as if it were Roads Services or Planning, where minimal context within the community is the norm, is to fall for a wrong assumption.

Mr Massie calls for a wholesale reform of the education system without so much as a hint at how this might be done, nor the extent to which this could be done without a parallel reform of society. Blair’s academies and Gove’s free schools are faction-based and only ever going to be partial solutions, even if successful. Let’s drop the party-partisan rah-rah, shall we? Rather than beat up his old enemy the SNP—apparently just for the sake of it—I hope serious contributors like Mr Massie would consider joining in the debate to achieve real long-term improvements.

He (and Labour and Uncle Tom Cobley) are right to highlight the problems. But in this era of declining incomes and budgets, what would he suggest beyond what is being done? A societal approach to education seems the only sensible one. This is not to shirk that more must be done by both councils and government to lower class sizes, engage teachers and apply strict standards. Those emerging from school must be smart, keen and useful and not just using pieces of SQA paper as camouflage for a lack of purpose.

SO, get off the sidelines and onto the field, Mr Massie. Our kids deserve better: you, of all people, know they do.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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