Brian Monteith: Sturgeon must learn to try harder

Sturgeon was out at the weekend campaigning for the General Election. Picture: PA

Sturgeon was out at the weekend campaigning for the General Election. Picture: PA

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If the First Minister was less focused on control and power our schools and health service might be in better shape, writes Brian Monteith

IT took everyone by surprise last week. For after more than a decade of resistance to significant change based upon the experience of other countries the new First Minister announced she was going to introduce some long-overdue education reforms to Scotland’s schools. And not just any old reforms that have been applied across the European continent – but a Labour reform introduced in England, called the London Challenge.

This is the same Nicola Sturgeon who, as SNP shadow education spokesman in the dark days of opposition, showed no interest in the successful reforms being applied in Scandinavia that were to form the basis of Labour’s Academy Schools and the Conservatives’ Free Schools. This is the same Nicola Sturgeon who supported the removal of independent governance from St Mary’s Primary School in Dunblane and the abolition of earlier reforms that had empowered head teachers and parents.

When listening to her speak in an education debate it was like being transported to an EIS conference and hearing a list of the general secretary’s latest demands. In regard to health, which she was to serve as cabinet minister for five years, she also avoided many reforms that could have improved our NHS. She resisted changes to provision for chronic pain and painted everything that the private sector did as beyond the pale. Well it is about time she accepted responsibility for her ostrich-like behaviour for the empirical evidence that has been available since the days of the Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive, and has grown steadily under the management of the SNP’s Scottish government, has been damning. Rather than devolution bringing us improved public services as a result of them being run more locally, we actually have had relatively poorer outcomes in health and education compared to England.

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This is all the more ironic because devolution meant that the many reforms introduced by first Blair’s Labour and then Cameron’s Coalition government were intentionally ignored as the Scottish Parliament sought to be different. The losers in this have been the pupils and patients, more often than not the poorest and most disadvantaged in society.

The SNP must take a significant share of the blame for that failure. Salmond and Sturgeon ignored opportunities to introduce possibly controversial public service reforms and instead focused on maximising their appeal to boost the Yes vote. Even the sweet mood music of the former education secretary, Mike Russell, who had previously demonstrated an open mind with his book Grasping the Thistle soon turned to a predictable dirge and a failure to advance any change that would upset the local authorities or teaching unions.

It should be noted that although considered successful, the London Challenge is no longer in operation, it was a time-limited initiative because it was very expensive to run and ended in 2011. Once the earmarked funds were used in particular target schools the initiative would be reviewed and often wound-up. It remains to be seen if the First Minister’s offer of £100 million over the next four years will be sufficient to make it effective.

Unfortunately just spending money is not the solution, what is required is a change of culture and methodology. Although education spending is 5 per cent higher in Scotland than the UK average and has enjoyed a 32 per cent increase in real terms since 1999, this huge increase has not brought a commensurate improvement in results. Tellingly, neither has the recent squeeze in spending had any negative impact.

Scottish pupils have performed relatively badly by international comparison. In an effort to disguise Scotland’s educational problems successive Scottish governments have made it harder to make comparisons of their performance against other jurisdictions be the international or within the UK – or between schools. Labour and then SNP ministers have restricted information on schools that was once publicly available, withdrawn from international studies and made the comparison of exams more opaque.

As with education, so too with health. The Swedish Health Consumer Powerhouse provides the most comprehensive comparative study of European healthcare, publishing every year since 2005. In 2013 the index listed Scotland in its own right for the first time but the news was not good.

While Scotland ranks mid-table at 14th out of 35 the majority of those countries behind us are former communist East European states that have a great deal of catching up to do. Only Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain perform worse than Scotland in Western Europe, while England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries all perform significantly better than us.

Likewise a study by the Health Foundation and Nuffield Trust, published in April 2014, confirms that while performance is broadly similar across the UK, mortality rates that are responsive to health care are still a little better in England than the rest of the UK, despite lower overall funding. The truth is that Scotland’s NHS is performing poorly compared to the high standard of healthcare available elsewhere.

I have no doubt that in the next few weeks Sturgeon will also make time to show her concern about the state of the NHS in Scotland and announce a few new initiatives and repackage existing ones. But why now? Why should the First Minister make great claims about what she will do about education and health when her government has been responsible for both over the last eight years? Now in charge and with her party facing two elections, Sturgeon is seeking to get her retaliation in first by offering change – before her opponents really focus on her vulnerable record.

Surveying that past record and her resistance to reform, one cannot help conclude from what is now being offered that the First Minister does not believe in significant reform, she only believes in power and retaining control. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s the politics, stupid.

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