Hugh Reilly: Same old hypocrisy from politicians

Hugh Reilly
Hugh Reilly
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IN THE early nineties, the Labour Party, the self-appointed people’s party, decided to downsize Glasgow’s comprehensive school portfolio from 44 to 29.

The education convener, Ian Davidson, stated that closures and amalgamations would benefit students by offering a greater number of courses. He castigated critics who claimed financial savings from economies of scale were the driving force behind the programme.

According to him, schools with only a few hundred pupils were not viable. A few years later, Mr Davidson, who had become the MP for Govan, fought like a Horatio on the Kingston Bridge to stop the closure of St Gerard’s, despite the comp’s roll being less than 250 souls. I cite this piece of retro hypocrisy to highlight the response of Labour’s education spokesperson, Kezia Dugdale, to news of college mergers.

The rationalisation of further education provision announced by education secretary, Mike Russell, was enthusiastically welcomed by the Scottish Funding Council and John Henderson, the chief executive of Colleges Scotland.

Miss Dugdale declared the reconfiguration of colleges to be a cost-cutting catastrophe. “The colleges are now closed to adult learners and mothers wanting to retrain,” she said. Putting aside her sexist comment, Miss Dugdale’s faux-solidarity with the downtrodden is a bit rich coming from a woman who would demand a tuition fee from any of these self-same mums who managed to secure a university place.

The woman who makes Dr No seem like a glass-half-full kinda guy fulminated that “college students will continue to pay the price for the sector being the poor cousin to higher education under the SNP”.

Sorry to be unhelpful, Ms Dugdale, but – and I’m pretty certain about this – the notion of colleges being regarded as the impoverished kinfolk predates the SNP accession to power. To use an analogy, in terms of public prestige, colleges have always been geriatric medicine while universities have been neurological science.

Thankfully, her politically motivated moaning attracted as much attention as a seductive siren warbling out to a yacht crewed by flamboyant sailors who participated in this year’s Edinburgh Gay Pride march,

In my view, the mergers mean a reduction in the insane competition for bums on seats that have eroded a degree of integrity from the sector. A college acquaintance, a lecturer in mathematics, told me how management put the thumb screws on to force him to “revisit” the scores of some apprentice engineering students who had failed modules and were consequently ineligible to sit the final exam.

This threat was not based on academic rigour but rather management’s fear that not awarding certificates of success (albeit ill-deserved) would lead to the engineering company taking its business elsewhere.

In the past decade, in the war of attrition to enlist student infantry, the body count has led to internecine fighting among colleges in the stampede to be patronised by 15-year-old troublemakers that schools cannot handle.

Transforming further education establishments into de facto respite centres for schools has helped to massage exclusion figures and reduced the number of repeat prescriptions of antidepressants required by chalkies. However, from anecdotal evidence, the educational value of despatching teenage scamps to boot college has not always been a tremendous success.

From personal experience, I am very aware that colleges need a recalibration. My youngest son had a choice of three colleges for his computing qualification. Like most teenagers, he attended open days at each before making his prudent selection based on proximity to bus routes and fast-food outlets. Halfway through his course, he was informed that the second year might have to be completed at another college due to a projected fall in the number of students passing the first-year examination. How bizarre.

The good news for Ms Dugdale is that students will not notice any changes, other than signage, for a few years. With a Scottish parliamentary election on the horizon, perhaps she would like to take the opportunity to say that should Labour win, it will restore the further education sector to its current fragmented state.

Call me cynical but this is as likely as Ian Davidson photobombing Eric Joyce’s next mugshot.