Brian Monteith: ‘Education failure’ will be the Nationalist epitaph

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For all its blustering bravado about holding another independence referendum, it is the sheer scale of its own incompetence that is going to sink the SNP government – and its failure on education will matter the most.

The SNP once had a strategy of showing it was at least no worse than Labour and the Liberal Democrats at managing Scottish public services. Once the public could see that schools would still teach kids to read and count, even speak a second language; once people could be assured that there would be no NHS cuts that would diminish the service they had come to expect; and once everyone would be relaxed that the trains would run on time and roads would be, if not paved with gold, at least paved then the SNP could win a second term and get down to the business of delivering independence.

The SNP's management of education under Swinney and his predecessors has been to deny, dissemble and distort the true picture of what is happening in Scottish schools, says Brian Monteith. Picture: Stuart Nicol

The SNP's management of education under Swinney and his predecessors has been to deny, dissemble and distort the true picture of what is happening in Scottish schools, says Brian Monteith. Picture: Stuart Nicol

If the Scottish Executive, now re-branded the Scottish Government, could run competently the vast majority of those public services that touch Scots then they could have the confidence to take on the whole gamut not yet devolved of raising taxes, conducting foreign relations and having a credible defence.

The strategy undoubtedly worked. Having become the largest party at Holyrood by one seat, and then relied upon Annabel Goldie’s hitherto untouchable Tories to rule as a minority administration, the SNP went on to win a famous second term in 2011 that gave Alex Salmond the chutzpah to push on with a referendum that he nearly won.

Now, four years on from that disappointment, and the SNP government is still waving the flag for a further referendum but the strategy of demonstrating its competence is in tatters. Everybody can see it except the SNP government itself, which is either in complete and utter denial of its growing litany of failures – evidenced by a failure to show humility and the constant need to spin an alternative narrative – or ministers simply blame Westminster and Tory austerity which is not supported by the facts.

This past week we have seen education come back to the fore as possibly the greatest failure of SNP competence.

If there was one thing domestically that Scotland developed within the union it was a world-wide reputation for an enviably successful education system that equipped boys and girls of all classes with an ability to achieve their ambitions. That is not a claim that can be made now.

The decline in Scottish education did not happen overnight, but it has become more marked during the tenure of the three SNP administrations.

We have seen a steady decline in primary school literacy and numeracy, the introduction of a new curriculum that is more and more accepted within the teaching profession as in need of urgent reform, while Scotland’s position in various international rankings for maths, English and science has fallen from among the best to barely average and behind countries with much poorer resources.

Professor of Education Jim Scott has demonstrated the pass rate for the Higher exams is declining. Now pass rates will go up and down, but a decline of three years in a row is a trend, and one that cannot be ignored. While the teaching of Gaelic was given a generous pledge of further support from education secretary John Swinney, we can also see the uptake in foreign languages has fallen through the floor with the obvious outcome that fewer Scottish pupils will be equipped for the wider world. The picture in sciences is no better.

Gaelic is not much use in China or the Americas but the SNP undoubtedly hopes it should make us feel different from the rest of the UK.

We also know teacher shortages in key subjects such as maths are common and the numbers of teachers leaving the profession is expected to grow. We know that other experts on Scottish education, such as Professor Lindsay Paterson and Keir Bloomer believe urgent action is required but the supposed John Swinney – whom Nicola Sturgeon appointed as a safe pair of hands – has withdrawn his proposed education reforms rather than build a consensus with other parties in Holyrood.

Indeed the SNP’s management of education under Swinney and his predecessors has been to deny, dissemble and distort the true picture of what is happening in Scottish schools by changing how statistics are presented, withdrawing from comparative international rankings and shoving the blame on to others. Yet we now know that spending on education has fallen by an enormous £400m over a period when the resources available are reported by the Accounts Commission as being constant. So much for education being the top priority that Nicola Sturgeon claimed.

It was the First Minister herself who said, “judge me on my record on education” – well if we do that it shall have to be a Fail. It was the First Minister who said, “I have a sacred responsibility to make sure every young person gets the same chance to succeed” – yet restricted subject choice and funding cuts mean this too would be marked Fail.

I have written in this column before that Nicola Sturgeon’s only hope of the SNP remaining the largest party after the next Holyrood elections is if she can divide the country for or against independence, preferably through holding an unwanted referendum, so that supporters of independence stay with her party. The strategy for competence has been abandoned, not intentionally, but simply because the government is indeed incompetent.

We see this not just in education but in other areas too. Despite having been given more funding for healthcare than ever before by Westminster (essentially the English taxpayer) the NHS is beyond breaking point with Accident & Emergency or Children’s wards closing and being relocated further away from patients.

British free enterprise delivered the Forth Bridge in the 19th Century, the British state delivered the Forth Road Bridge in the 20th Century, but the Scottish government has still not completed the Queensferry Crossing even though it rushed to open it before it was truly finished. Our roads meanwhile have more craters than the moon and let’s not even start on the trains.

The SNP government has avoided necessary reforms if they might upset vested interests who might vote for independence and has persevered with policies that take focus away from ensuring our children can read, write and count. People can see what is happening and it is through their own incompetence that voters will finally reject the SNP.