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The Stalinist logic behind the SNP’s approach to education

28 May 2015

10:45 AM

28 May 2015

10:45 AM

Early in the campaign for Scottish independence the SNP commissioned a party political broadcast called Two Futures. It told the story of Kirsty, a baby due to be born on polling day. ‘What kind of country will I grow up in?’ she asks in a childish falsetto.

One vision of the future is full of colour and gap-toothed smiles, with children skipping and laughing on their way to school. A nuclear family sit around the breakfast table in a sun-kissed kitchen eating fruit (this scene acts as a useful reminder that the broadcast is set firmly in the realm of fantasy).

The alternative is a future in which Scotland votes to remain in the United Kingdom. In this monochrome dystopia the Palace of Westminster looms above an innocent child. She sits with a teddy bear in silhouette beneath the projected image of a chain-link fence. Then a tank rumbles over her head.

The SNP can be forgiven for being schmaltzy; their strategists believed that if they lost the referendum it would rob the party of its purpose. But they underestimated themselves. Just months after losing the referendum they are celebrating a barnstorming performance at the General Election. The post-referendum future looks very bright for the SNP. It has become clear that Scottish independence is a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.

It’s inconceivable that the current constitutional arrangement can remain in place while 56 of our 59 seats in Westminster are occupied by separatists. It seems that, in typical Scottish fashion, we are going to gain independence gradually and without the fanfare activists were hoping for last September.


So what will Scotland be like when we are in charge of (most of) our own affairs? Presumably it won’t be the land of milk and honey the SNP once promised. The parts of government we currently control could provide some clues. Having gone through the Scottish school system (or part of it before dropping out at fourteen) I don’t rate it very highly. Personal grievances aside the numbers speak for themselves; according to the most recent figures a staggering 45 per cent of second year pupils can’t ‘write well’. Given the low bar set by the Scottish government this is a massive failure. When it comes to numeracy over a third of pupils the same age are literally off the charts, or ‘not yet working within the level’.

Scotland’s floundering education system is going through an upheaval at the moment. Standard Grades (our GCSE equivalent) have been dropped in favour of something called National 5 certificates. For those who don’t manage to get one there is National 4, which doesn’t involve any exams, but a ‘process of continuous assessment’. Under the new system pupils won’t be formally tested until their fourth year of high school. Those who choose to start studying for their Highers (our A Level equivalent) early could be seventeen before they sit their first exam.

To make matters worse the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) doesn’t seem to want to commit to its own reforms. A high school science teacher tells me ‘they are making changes to assessment criteria and course content while the courses are being taught.’ The stark reality is that Kirsty would be much better off attending your average English comprehensive.

The Scottish government is tinkering in other ways too. The state secondary school I attended is in a catchment area that languishes at the bottom of national indices which measure poverty, education attainment and health. Then as now disciplinary problems abound, and so a new approach to the problem is being piloted.

It is one of three schools in Scotland with acute behavioural problems. Since the beginning of January staff have been trying to solve the problem with something called the ‘restorative approach’. Its adherents present it as an effective replacement of the traditional adversarial justice system. In his book on the subject, Howard Zehr, an early advocate, describes it in a sentence: ‘Restorative justice provides an alternative framework for thinking about wrongdoing.’ If that sounds a bit woolly, that’s because it is.

The idea is that conflict should be resolved by reaching a fair resolution which involves the input of the victim and the perpetrator. Perhaps this sounds reasonable; we are talking about misbehaving children rather than hardened criminals. Although the distinction is occasionally blurred at this particular school.

In practice restorative justice means that teachers are no longer able to punish their pupils. A staff member there summed up the problem with the approach:

‘We can’t send a disruptive child out of the class anymore, because it’s seen as punitive. The theory is that sending the problem away doesn’t make it go away. The whole class has to deal with it together, but it doesn’t leave much time for education.’

The SNP’s education experiment is every bit as ideological as anything Michael Gove did during his stint as Education Secretary, but it has happened with much less scrutiny.

Meddling is fine if it gets results, but will these reforms achieve anything? If this is the box-ticking exercise it appears to be, then the answer is a resounding yes. In the first year of the new system the overall pass rate for National 5s was a respectable 81 per cent. But if the goal is better education for Scottish children then I doubt it. It will be very hard to tell in either case; the Scottish Government refuses to publish school league tables.

There is a peculiar, borderline Stalinist, logic behind the SNP’s approach to education. What do you do if you can’t get get children to pass exams? Stop examining them, of course. What if you can’t get them to behave? Stop disciplining them. As the protagonist realised in 1984 ‘if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself’.

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