Education as Political Football

Currently, politicians are getting stick for appearing to prefer squabbling to getting things done. While this can been seen as simplistic and not showing understanding of how democracy works, there is nonetheless much truth in the accusation. Because what they choose to squabble about is seldom the arcane details of a law or deep-rooted philosophical differences about the ‘big picture’ but issues that are closer to the punter’s heart—and therefore more likely to catch the media and gain publicity.

Whether it’s care homes or schools or road repairs (all devolved matters), there’s always a lively public debate in pubs and letters pages about such things. If you rank these devolved matters by the amount of money we spend on them, the top three—by a country mile—are Health (~£9bn), Education (~£7bn) and Social Work (~£3bn), in that order. Study the media and you will find reports of political spats revolving around one or other of those on a regular basis. But do these spats get to the heart of things?

Although Health is the largest of the ‘big three’ there really isn’t much of a political dimension to its operation. While arguments over waiting times and Clostridium difficile do break out, politicians (sensibly) leave the technical side of running the health service to the professionals.

Not so Education. Not only is it the largest part of any council budget but it hits the headlines more often than any other topic. And, in this case, politicians have not been shy about debating how schools and universities should be funded, run and managed.

This involvement has been heightened by Education being among the most highly unionised sectors of the Scottish economy, boasting a range of unions, among which the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) is the largest. They were instrumental in the growth of school teacher numbers in the 1970/80’s as new subjects were added to the academic curriculum (e.g. CDT; Computer Science; Music) and of administrative staff as school offices expanded in scope and function. Staff at HE and FE institutions grew even faster as a tertiary qualification was deemed to be for everyone.

By the millennium, pupil numbers had slid from their 1975 peak of 1.05m to around 0.75m. Over the following decade, they continued to slide to around 0.66m but the millennium is regarded as something of a watershed: it was finally recognised that teachers had slipped behind. This was not just in pay terms: children’s rights, complex curricula, inclusion etc had all made a teacher’s job more difficult at a time when the social status of teachers had fallen behind that of doctors and solicitors with whom they had once been seen as equals.

The McCrone Report of 2001 was a milestone that was turned into an agreement with cross-party support. Much of the teacher’s time usage was defined and a considerable pay deal of a 21.5% increase over 3 years granted, followed by 10% over another four years, all of which found broad support. Mostly due to this, council education budgets almost doubled over a decade.

After six years, an ordinary teacher can now earn £32,583. As the Scottish Block Grant doubled (£16bn to £32bn) in the first decade of the 21st century, the sharp hikes in council outlay this involved were covered and otherwise painful adjustments were accommodated without painful trade-offs.

Even so, the unions never slept. Teachers didn’t quibble with their campaigns for improved pension and pay rises on top of all this, despite that fact that no change in productivity, flexibility or the right to fire incompetent teachers was forthcoming as part of the deal. Also, many teachers who formerly had displayed flexibility, such as helping with extra-curricular activities, no longer did so. Although many teachers still see teaching as a vocation and contribute more than their contract requires, the numbers who clock-watch and only do stipulated hours has increased markedly.

Yet their annual number of teaching hours has been reducing—from 950 hours in 2000 to 893 hours in 2005 and to 855 hours in 2010 at the primary level. At the same time, pupil-teacher ratios in public schools have dropped in the decade since the millennium—from 14.9 to 13.5 (i.e. by 10%), with most improvement being in the crucial early years (i.e. infant classes) of primary schools.

The bottom line of all this should be pupils with better skills and abilities to take out into the world when they’re done. And, while there has been a steady improvement in ‘exam league table’ results, there are accusations of grade inflation, as well as educationalists’ understandable skepticism of using this as a sole measure: learning is not just about passing exams.

This ‘careerist’ approach to educating our children places heavy emphasis on tertiary education, and the gaining of a degree. Whereas fifty years ago, all four Scottish universities of the day had fewer than 40,000 students matriculated, fifteen years ago this number had grown to 141,892 (with 191,526 in FE colleges). This number peaked in the last few years at over 287,565. Combined with the present recession, such numbers swamp available jobs and result in a major social waste of large numbers of unemployed graduates.

One reason for the disappearance of the once-guaranteed job for graduates is what youth have chosen to study. Starting in the 1960’s humanities course like Social Anthropology blossomed and sciences were seen as ‘too hard’. This has since become critical. Despite physics graduates being in demand and snagging healthy salaries as a result, their numbers have dropped by well over 20%—from 1,970 15 years ago to 1,545 today. According to an IOP Report:

  • Physics graduates find employment in a wide range of industry sectors, with a significant proportion relocating overseas.
  • Physics graduates earn above the median UK wage and succeed in management positions and consultancy roles.
  • More than half of first-degree physics graduates earn a salary in excess of £40,000 and more than half with a PhD in physics earn over £50,000

The quality of both teaching and research at Scottish universities is world-class. But research hubs are not career factories nor do they function well  as career consultants. Given that our youth aredriven through school with expectations from both parents and teachers that everyone goes university, students wind up with an unbalanced view of what is possible and/or desirable in life.

Scotland’s political parties supported this mushrooming of student numbers as an unalloyed good—and still cling to it as doctrine. They have yet to twig how public money and youth ambition are both being sacrificed on this doctrinaire altar. Fixation with numbers—be it class sizes in primaries, league tables in secondaries or sheer quantity in tertiary—has beguiled them all. They tout quantity as opposed to quality. Our clutch of teaching unions are all part of this, exhibiting little but paranoia when it comes to changing philosophy or methodology.

Few have broken ranks to ask fundamental questions about our education, let alone gone abroad to study if others might do it better. Our youngsters are not best served by conveyer-belting them along a single ‘academic’ track defined by political shibboleths of politicians and vested self-interests of unions. To get out of this self-excavated rut, we need to answer:

  1. How do we best start children in formal education? Before 6 is unusual elsewhere but their kindergartens provide informal education, develop social skills and widen cultural horizons early on. Norway’s policy of year-round outdoor kindergartens is worth a look.
  2. How do we ensure basic literacy and numeracy before they leave infant stage? A major complaint of university lecturers and (worse) employers is how few students can express themselves beyond textspeak or make a decent fist of mental arithmetic
  3. How do we involve ALL parents pro-actively as part of the process? This can be homework or extra-curricular support or simple interest and encouragement. A major factor in social segmentation is that many deprived pupils lack all that.
  4. How best to ensure that GIRFEC wasn’t just a hollow slogan? Class sizes are a factor, but so is the social environment or out-of-hours coaching and (are you listening EIS?) pro-active flexibility on the part of teachers.
  5. How to identify and ‘virtual’ stream (i.e. without physical segregation) the different directions that pupils are headed. Not just academic science vs creative but those with manual, sports, social, music, presentations, language and a host of other inherent skills. Few pupils will have none; all need encouragement; all need equal status—that Latin is ‘better’ than Woodwork is social striver myth.
  6. How, at secondary level especially, to allow for such specialisation as early as possible, without losing the Scottish baccalaureat concept of broad education to end of high school that has served Scots so much better than English A-levels?
  7. How to maintain a parity of esteem among specialisations. Dexterity with tools is as valuable as dexterity with footballs or a keyboard: all have status in the real world and all can earn reward on a par with ‘brainy’ work.
  8. Now that we’ve flooded H&FE with so many (a significant percentage of whom drop out) how do we restore universities to academic skills and research while colleges develop practical skills, supported by a comprehensive hands-on apprentice programme that covers the many key manual skills necessary in 21st century Scotland?

It’s not just a matter of parties and councils running scared of unions—those run by Labour who rely on their donations especially. Nor should we thole  Tory ideaology, importing English policies of ‘free’ schools and academies wholesale, with their inherent social fragmentation founded on Eton, Harrow, Winchester, etc and the virtual promulgation of those into Oxbridge. They may have their place in England; Scotland marches to a different social drum.

Our children should not be ammunition for political trench warfare, nor a vehicle for unions to shield their members from the realities of life. And—who knows—if we were to think the unthinkable and actually adopt educational ideas that clearly already work from places like Scandinavia, we might be on the road to building the kind of prosperous, egalitarian, admirable society here that they already enjoy.

Not just our children but those long out of school would surely welcome that.

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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