Alex Salmond is on his way out. The First Minister gives every impression of enjoying – or at least making the most of – his farewell tour. And why not? Far from weakening the SNP, defeat in September’s referendum has – at least for now – strengthened the party. Its supremacy is unchallenged and while recent polls putting the Nationalists on 50 percent of the vote are unlikely – surely! – to last forever this is the kind of problem worth having.
Nevertheless, the First Minister’s final days in office have also reminded us that policy and, indeed, philosophy are not necessarily Salmond’s strengths. Unusually, First Minister’s Questions proved a useful exercise this week. Both Jackie Baillie, Labour’s temporary head at Holyrood, and Ruth Davidson pressed Salmond on education. About time too, you may say, and you would be correct.
According to Salmond, however, there’s nothing to see here. Nothing to worry about. You see:
Cannot Ruth Davidson understand that, in the vast expansion of nursery education, Scotland is doing well; in the exciting development of the curriculum for excellence, Scotland is doing well; in the Ian Wood commission on vocational education and how it relates to the colleges, Scotland has an exciting opportunity to develop vocational education through the school and college curriculum; and our advocacy of free education has been vindicated by the success of our universities over the past few years?
On all those aspects, Scottish education is performing well. As we go into the future to enhance and improve that performance, let us do it on the basis of the Scottish principles of education—that means that each child should get an equal chance and not have to pay by cheque book for education—and not go down the road of privatisation and disintegration as the Tories south of the border have.
And yet if the picture is so rosy why is a child attending the best state schools 50 times more likely to pass five Highers than a child attending attending poorer-performing schools? Why does a child in the most deprived districts of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee often have just a one in ten chance of gaining the grades required to attend university?
If everything is so good – if Scotland is performing so well – why did the Joseph Rowntree Foundation observe earlier this year that “Scotland’s attainment gap in reading for boys was the highest in the developed world”?
But, hey, never mind all that. Let’s just congratulate ourselves on not being Michael Gove. And let’s, naturally, promote a caricature of the Gove-Adonis reforms in England that’s so inaccurate it should really be considered a bare-faced falsehood.
Because – and I’m not sorry to bang on about this – the truth is that Scotland is not a country in which every child enjoys an equal chance. If only that were the case! But it isn’t. Not when only one child in four in our largest city gets five qualifications at National Level Five. If that is success – if that is performing well – then you’d hate to ask what failure might look like.
Plenty of people are capable of acknowledging there is a problem. By contrast Alex Salmond lives in denial. Perhaps he has to. Because the alternative is admitting his critics might have a point and that’s something that can never be countenanced. We can’t have people talking Scotland down after all.
No-one worries about kids in East Renfrewshire any more than they worry about children attending Cults Academy or Boroughmuir High. These children are going to be fine pretty much regardless of anything central government decides. It’s the bottom third of Scottish pupils we have to worry about. The ones deprived the chance of having an equal chance. Not through any fault of their own but because they’re trapped in a system that does not give them the chance to prove their potential, the chance to get to a position from which they can make real choices about their lives. The chance to learn their way up the social mobility ladder.
It is true, for sure, that the Adonis-Gove reforms in England have proved uneven. Not every Academy has been a great success. Not every Free School will prove a world-beater. It is simply not possible, however, to claim that these reforms have failed. The best of the new schools – the ones Scotland can learn from – have worked wonders. People visit them and leave filled with a most curious sensation: hope.
Now it’s also true that plenty of people – in our universities, in local authorities – recognise there’s a problem in Scotland. Hell, even the Labour party is beginning to see there could be a problem (one for which they share some heavy share of responsibility). The only people who don’t, it seems to me, are the teaching unions and members of the SNP. It’s Scottish – distinctively Scottish! – therefore it must be great, you see.
But if you cannot see a problem you cannot expect it to be fixed. Here again, however, there is an opportunity. Because there are only five million folk in this small country it should be possible to turn things around reasonably quickly. It will take hard work and the right people, of course, but it can be done. The problems with education reform lie chiefly in scale. It is damnably difficult to expand successful programmes. Scale is the enemy of progress.
Which is one reason why the English revolution is incomplete and uneven. But, therefore, also a reason why a comparable revolution could be more easily achieved in Scotland.
That would require some spirit of experimentation, however. And yet there is an opportunity. England’s best academy chains – the ones that have proved they can improve test scores for pupils from deprived backgrounds – could be invited to start pilot programmes in Scotland. Leading businessmen such as Jim McColl, Ian Wood, Tom Hunter, Brian Souter et al could be asked to sponsor new academies. The cost – a couple of million – would be trivial; the benefit to their legacy immense. A Scottish equivalent of Teach for America or Teach First aimed at attracting the brightest graduates to teach in the toughest schools would be no bad thing.
There are, that is, many, many things that could be done. Many approaches to making the kind of difference that makes a real difference. The kind that transforms lives and creates new opportunities for those who most need to be encouraged to look to the stars.
But you have to live in the real world for that to happen. You have to break out from a bubble of denial.
There are many different approaches that could be taken, so let’s try some of them and see what works. In that respect it may be no bad thing that Scotland will soon have a new First Minister. Will Nicola Sturgeon be up to the challenge? It is, after all, Scotland’s Future.