WITH independence we can continue our already proud tradition in education and adapt to help create a fairer society, writes Mike Danson
Pursuing freedom from Beveridge’s “five great evils of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, disease” was at the core of the post-war consensus across the UK. The welfare state was introduced to fight these evils and, though not without its faults, the progressive dismantling of the protection it presented is now a critical element in the independence debate.
Scottish control over education – the specific counter to “Ignorance” – was protected by the Act of Union but independence offers us the opportunity to uphold both traditional values and to ensure that massive budget cuts threatened by the Treasury in Westminster do not undermine our capacity to invest in our children, young people and lifelong learning. With the objective of raising achievement while preserving an egalitarian ideal, what should a progressive education system look like?
First it should be supporting people and families in education and learning throughout life. Following the practice in the best-performing societies and economies, comprehensive and affordable childcare and nursery provision are essential in laying the basis for all to progress and for wider equalities to be pursued. Scotland will be a more successful and fulfilled nation only if all are allowed to be all they can be, regardless of gender, ethnicity, class, caring responsibility or disability, and investment in these early years are absolutely vital.
Based on his lifetime experience, Brian Boyd, Emeritus professor of education at the University of Strathclyde, has praised the progress made by the Scottish education system over the last century, while recognising its faults. He has argued for a comprehensive system with the highest expectations of all children, taught by the best teachers with a mission to educate the whole child in a system not dominated by formal exams. That contrasts with the approach south of the Border and suggests a reappraisal of the strengths, aims and players of our schools and education and training. That does not imply further changes at all levels but rather a period of allowing the Curriculum for Excellence to develop, for Scotland’s good industrial relations and high skill levels of its teaching staff and university expertise to be applied, and for facilities and other resources to be used to best effect.
Where there are issues to address, these must focus on closing the gaps that exist in the aspirations and environments in some areas. That will require a real step change in performance: learning from past mistakes and successes, learning from elsewhere. Wider and deeper changes in the Scottish economy and society will be integral to, dependent on and generating these progressive improvements: these are complementary policies and strategies and need addressed holistically.
YES POSITION AT-A-GLANCE
• Budgets for schools, colleges and universities protected from Osborne’s cuts
• Savings from Trident and not paying for Westminster invested in a transformational expansion of free childcare
• New powers to tackle inequalities and poverty – the most significant cause of educational inequalities
• Free university tuition shows making our own decisions works – and will be protected with a Yes vote
Underpinning structural improvements will be the long-established partnership principles that underpin much of what is good in Scotland and which is recognised beyond this country, this contrasts with the competition and conflict that characterises the neo-liberal approach. In this context, it is often the case that the aspects of the Scottish educational infrastructure and institutions that are appreciated around the world are criticised or ignored at home. The OECD, UN, European Commission and others have singled out our leading role and superiority in many dimensions of framing and delivering education, while the problems and weaknesses receive all the attention here. Building on the strengths and addressing the issues should guide future developments.
A key objective in the ongoing evolution of the education and training system will be in raising the status and significance of the vocational routes through later years of secondary school and beyond. We already have a further education and modern apprenticeship system that works well but there are still questions over gender and disability obstacles and some skill shortages.
Again, developments in post-school need to be undertaken cognisant of and consistent with wider changes in the economy. Promoting enterprise development through the employment of innovative workforces is standard in the Nordic countries, Netherlands and Germany, and modern apprenticeship systems underpin such successes along with more participative practices.
Building an economy that offers the prospects of skilled jobs for all school-leavers in a secure and inclusive national strategy has reduced inequalities, directly addressed aspirational and social scepticism, and led to long-term stable prosperity. An industrial strategy that suits the educational and training demands of its citizens has been the foundation of the better performance of our nearest competitors for almost two centuries, and vice versa, and an independent Scotland can pursue our own paths in these areas with promise.
Finally, Scotland is a world-leader in higher education in terms of having more top universities and outputs per academic staff than anywhere else on the planet. As a sector it is an outstanding success in preserving Scotland’s distinctive culture, values and attainment. Free university education, very high exam and job market performances, and out-performing neighbours in winning grants from national and international bodies can be enhanced further under independence by protecting Scottish institutions from the deep cuts being introduced in England, by diverting funds from such extravagances as Trident, and by a more welcoming immigration policy for international students. Having such facilities in Scotland offers students, families and returners the opportunity to learn with the best and, with a restructured and vibrant economy, the prospect of graduate-level employment here rather than the exit road to a congested, unfulfilling future.
At all levels, independence can change education and training for all for the better, within the UK we are constrained by inequality, an unbalanced economy and uncertainty.
• Mike Danson is professor of enterprise policy and director of doctoral programmes SML at Heriot-Watt University