Independence of Education

Time was a Scottish education was regarded as thorough, useful and a positive mark for the person who had passed through it. But, like those glory days when Scotland had the highest GDP per capita in the world and that world stood in awe of our ships, our engineering and our canniness with money, that all belongs to 100 years ago. As my granny would say “Ah’ve seen the day—but noo it’s nicht!

Politicians and pedagogue of every stripe agree that education is the future and therefore a high priority. So how is it that Scotland is so come down in the world that we have many more late teens out of work and generally unemployable than our continental neighbours? If the Eurozone is such a basket case and the UK such a dynamic place for business, why would Scandinavia, Holland, Austria and—most importantly—Germany be streets ahead in bringing their young into the heart of their economy, thereby building their future?

It is significant that last year was the first EIS conference to be addressed by an Education Secretary when Mike Russell responded to general secretary, Larry Flanagan’s accusation that the minister was “hiding behind the coat-tails of some Eton toffs” by failing to find a Scottish solution to Westminster’s proposed changes to teachers’ pensions. It is equally significant that the issue in question had diddly squat to do with education. But visit any Scottish teaching union website and the fixation with belligerent action to gain benefits to teachers (over any campaign to benefit young people in their care) is embarrassing.

So, with unions, ministers, parents and pupils all colluding of praise of the steady increase in SQA results over the last decade, all is well at the chalk-face?

This week the Final Report from the Commission for Developing Young People, chaired by Sir Ian Wood, published a number of salient stats that should make Mike Russell, EIS and pedagogues the length of the country pause and reflect just what we Scots are doing with our £12bn education budget.

  • Today, in Scotland we have 53,000 young people, not in work and not in education, waking up each morning wondering if their community has any need for them.
  • This unemployment rate at 18.8 per cent is almost three times the all-age unemployment rate of 6.4 per cent and double that of the best performing European countries.
  • More than 50 per cent of school leavers don’t go to university. Very few gain industry relevant vocational qualifications while still at school.
  • Less than 30 per cent of Scottish businesses have any contact of any kind with education.
  • Only 27 per cent of employers offer work experience opportunities.
  • Only 29 per cent of employers recruit directly from education.
  • Only 13 per cent of employers have Modern Apprentices.

Such stats are appalling but the report sank without media trace and the net “steady-as-she-goes” result is not what Scotland needs to fuel any post-independence economic boom. As the report itself pithily puts it: “one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them.

The tragic bottom line is that Scotland shares a miserable statistic of double-digit figures for youth who are ‘NEET’ (not in employment, education or training with Europe’s weakest economies: Cyprus, Romania, Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria. Not only is this shameful but, since youth NEET stats have been a focus in Scotland since before the 2007 recession, somebody needs to be asking some pointed questions.

The problem in Scottish education is not teachers’ conditions: they were sorted by McCrone agreement a decade ago that went entirely in the teachers’ favour and, since it asked for no productivity and time commitment improvement that is precisely what we have wound up with. Nor is it the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence—although it has increased workload marginally—nor GIRFEC, which aimed to better tailor teaching to individual needs seems that nobody is taking a fundamental flaw serious, nor even the school estate, now greatly improved by putting billions in private companies and council debt through Tory/Labour-wheeze PFI/PPF schemes.

So, basically, we have thrown money at education for a decade. Why is it STILL letting our youth down? It seems to be a cultural thing. The Scots have long been good at developing a ‘lad o’ pairts’ through its original network of parish schools led by fearsome dominies and that has been overlaid by the English (and now US) ‘meritocratic’ approach that favours those who can afford either to send their kids to private schools or to move to an area where the state ones have a good reputation.

This system was rather buried for a decade or two in the ’60s/’70s when Labour held sway and emphasised egalitarianism. This impeded school performance, especially in large ‘secondary modern’s. but did open university—once the preserve of ‘toffs’—to a much broader intake. The ’80s/’90s domination by Tories had much less effect on secondaries in Scotland but did continue the push to widen access to universities, such that we now suffer degree inflation where nobody without a degree can hope for a serious salaried job and those with can still wind up slinging hamburgers.

Culturally, this has meant parents becoming more involved to ensure ‘a good start in life’ for their kids and a fixation with exam results by all concerned so that places at ‘good’ (i.e. not ex-polytechnic) universities are secured and the next generation of surgeons/QCs/politicos safely launched on their billiard-ball-in-a-gutter way. Everyone is complicit in this. From parent to pupil to teacher to SQA to government, the single aspiration is clear.

But it is wrong. If the UK weren’t so appalling ignorant about what transpires among our neighbours (beyond the view from a sun-lounger in Torremolinos) they would wonder why the French have ‘Le Bac’ or the Germans bother with ‘Die Abitur’. Both provide a broad education pre-university so that they produce few ‘Fachidioten’ (specialised idiots), such as the English produce—with two A-levels in science and pig-ignorant since age 15 about all else focussing to secure those.

While a third of German students attend a Gymnasium to gain the requisite Abitur to enter universsity, the quarter heading for clerical or administation work Realschule, which leads to Fachschule and employment. Somewhat less than half continue in Hauptschule until about age 15 or 16. Afterward students are assigned to Berufsschule that they attend part-time in conjunction with an apprenticeship or other on-the-job training. This program makes it possible for virtually every young person in the vocational track to learn a useful skill or trade, constantly adapted to the actual demands of the employment market.

Bottom line is that, whichever channel is used, it is very professional training, appropriate to the career and with minimal social stigma attached. In Germany, an engineer or a carpenter both earn good money with much pride from their parents. The undertone of class system that still rears its ugly head in Scottish education is undetectable there. Sir Ian Wood’s report is an articulate plea for Scotland to learn such lessons. But as long as our educational establishment fixates on degrees (however spurious) and parents see white collar ‘prestige’ jobs as the sine qua non, we will continue to build someone else’s cars and delude ourselves we have a car industry—let alone the reputation for engineering the Clyde once enjoyed.

As a parting thought that the fix is not entirely related to dirty fingernails, our own Nicola Benedetti’s achievements stem from a deep-rooted belief in the powers of a creative element to education. As she herself puts it:

“Music is one of the most potent ways to tap into someone’s innate confidence. Singing in a choir, you’re having to express yourself but also take into consideration a whole group. Think of just how many little life skills you’re learning. No matter how hard you look, you cannot find evidence against 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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