Home from School

I may need to sit down, take a powder or do something radical: it seems I agree with Jim Murphy—something that has real rarity value. Now, unlike many Labour timeservers, Jim is not someone I dismiss. He packs an impressive array of awareness, shrewd evaluation, populist understanding, machiavellian diplomacy, nuanced articulation and sinewy ambition into an above-average political brain. My problem is I can’t get over an intense personal dislike of the Deus-ex-machina that results.

Nonetheless, the piece in today’s Sunday Hootsmon (aka SoS) announcing his taking on the SNP over education underscores how necessary a leader of his calibre is for Scottish Labour if they are ever to slough off the seven-year sleepwalk-to-oblivion in which they appear doggedly engaged.

Jim is clear, far-reaching and ambitious in his proposals for Scottish schools in particular. He wants to:

  • target the 20% of pupils who achieve the least—wherever they study
  • transform the 20 poorest performing schools into community learning centres
  • encourage parents with literacy issues of their own to learn alongside their children
  • ensure the Chartered Teachers scheme makes a comeback.

And, for me, perhaps the most laudable ambition I have heard from him to date:

“One of the things I am going to make an enormous effort on is the fact that too many kids from working class communities get locked out and it has happened for far too long.”

So far, so positive—gaun yersel’, Jim. But this is not the first time that a shrewd politician on the cusp of an election has thrown out some vibrant ideas as window dressing—without have thought through the feasibility and what it would take to achieve lofty goals.

Now I confess to being one of many who have scorned such lofty Labour pronouncements in the past because, having had 50 years dominating Scottish politics, how come they still preside over kids from Glasgow to Gorgie who underperform worst of all mostly in traditionally Labour-voting areas.

But, seven years of the SNP running the Scottish Government and many councils, we are no further on and Jim is quite right to argue something more radical is needed. And this is the first flaw in his ambition. Although theoretically part of the Labour movement, Scottish teaching unions from EIS on down will object: they are overworked; Curriculum for Excellence is not yet bedded in; teacher numbers are down; etc. It is a Pavlovian reaction they deploy—but it has worked like a charm for decades—especially on Labour. (See “Mining the Chalk Face“)

Take Chartered Teachers. A laudable idea to promote and reward those better suited to the classroom than layers of management, they could have been magnet teachers inspiring the best pupils. Instead it decayed through strict interpretation of McCrone-based clock-watching into a fiscal salary top-up scheme. It was abolished by the SNP two years ago.

A second element that Jim skips lightly over with his inclusion of parents’ role in the social context of failing pupils. Jim is likely to resort to Labour’s eternal solution: more money to alleviate poverty so kids don’t grow up poor and deprived. Problem is that Scots already enjoy £18bn in welfare (£3,600 per head per year) and that’s likely to drop—not rise—with the Smith Commission settlement and/or a Labour government for the UK.

The third—and probably most decisive element entirely absent from Jim’s ideas are what can be learned from elsewhere. The Scots a century ago boasted an egalitarian and effective education system whose superiority has, unfortunately, continued in the minds of pedagogues and union spokespeople into this century.

Over-protectiveness and fears of child abuse tend to make Scots overlook how Swedish toddlers get wrapped up and thrown out into the snow to learn social skills before they ever touch a pencil. Teachers balk at the lower salaries, huge autonomy but sky-high social status that Finnish teachers enjoy (See Long Way to the Finnish Line). Parents, teachers and officials conspire to revere academic exams as the sole measure of education while Germans accord the skilled artisan as much respect as the bookish kid headed towards teaching Greek. Their manufacturing prowess speaks for itself.

But perhaps the worst aspect is that parents—especially middle-class parents—send kids to school as if they were putting the Lexus in for a tune-up. They expect results, yet seldom grasp the active role that they—and all parents—have to play. Unlike any other public facility, the local school is an extension of the home; it is where children will make friends, form their character, learn most and coalesce the journey they will make the reast of their lives.

Any parent who sees it as cheap childcare needs an attitude adjustment before they damage the child they profess to love. They should care about the ethos of the school, take time to know teachers so they will better know their own children and become part of the team that is preparing the next generation to take over the world and shape it once the rest of us are past caring.

Although modern car-based society makes it difficult, the Yoruba saying “It takes a whole village to educate a child” is prescient. Neighbours, shopkeepers, clubs, local police, sports all add to experience, social balance and perspective—which is why private schools should be abolished (or at least taxed) because of the rarified atmosphere the pupils breathe—not just because of their socially divisive nature. They are like the big brother who scorns his sibling’s ineptitude, rather than taking him under his wing.

So, in that sense, school should be an extension of the home—a place where kids feel they are wanted, are acknowledged, feel comfortable. That takes both parent participation and teacher engagement; just marching into a classroom and delivering lectures is what happens at university but has no place in schools. And if the pupil shines only at sports or at wood shop or art or music but can’t ‘get’ logarithms to save his/her life, it is time for the graduate factory to shift gear and hone those gifts they have been given, rather than censure them for not grasping what is (let’s face it) marginal as a life skill.

So, if Jim gets round to thinking that raising the bar for all is great (provided it isn’t always the same ‘identikit’ bar), if he takes on the smug self-referential greed merchants of EIS and most other unions, if he modifies Labour’s narrow, pork-barrel priorities in communities and instead cracks how to inspire deprived kids so they never have deprived kids of their own, who knows what might happen?

I might even get to like the guy. I’d certainly like the kind of Scotland the brave, radical thinking extending these initial steps of his could create.

See also:

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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