Does Scotland, as a society, really care about education? A decade ago, the question would have verged on the sacreligious.
Education was our USP. The best in the world, we used to boast. Faith in the democratic intellect shaped our self-image. Always a little over-egged but with at least a basis of historic truth.
Look at us now. Further down the international league tables than the Scottish football team for whom it is not an option to stop publishing results which is the Scottish Government’s preferred tactic on literacy and numeracy.
Of course, as individuals and families we care about education. We want the best for our children. We want them to have a schooling that ensures a decent start in life and maybe we even complain (but not enough) if they are not getting it.
But how do we act as a society? The test should lie in the reaction – or lack of – to this week’s outrageous news that Scotland is spending £400 million less on our schools than we were just eight years ago – a monstrous 7.5 per cent cut in real terms.
This confirmation, provided by the Scottish Parliament’s own research centre at the behest of Labour’s Iain Gray, is a true measure of the status accorded to schooling by our devolved rulers. Is there any political price to pay? That is the test.
As it happened, the leaving certificate results also came out this week. They weren’t very good in statistical terms, confirming a gradual slide in attainment. However, these headline figures conceal more than they reveal.
The majority of youngsters will always do pretty well and can perform a wee jig for the cameras when the results come through. If they have suffered from funding cuts, it is at the margins – perhaps the loss of something life-enhancing like music tuition thanks to the 30 per cent cut in music instructors.
It is the others, who are kept well hidden on results day, who desperately need more investment in education and not less. A relentless period of cuts which started in 2009 will surely be reflected in their outcomes and life prospects for years to come.
It is always, of course, someone else to blame. A Scottish Government spokesman nominated “Tory austerity” and even “the potential damage caused by Brexit”. How demeaning that our civil servants are required to communicate such complete tripe.
Cuts in spending on schools should be seen in conjunction with the recent Accounts Commission report which revealed that local authorities have seen their funding cut by ten per cent since 2010 while the Scottish Government’s own budget is broadly the same as a decade ago.
Since they took over at Holyrood, the SNP have operated a simple formula – claim credit for headline-grabbing announcements, transfer blame for bad news and, critically, make under-funded councils the whipping-boys for cuts. Nobody can say it hasn’t worked for them.
However, awareness gradually dawns that councils cannot spend money they do not have – and schools are by far their biggest ticket item. Ministerial hypocrisy is all the more extreme because of their interminable photo opportunities with children in classrooms and oh-so-sincere soundbites about education as their highest priority. Meanwhile, they are filching £400 million a year from the same classrooms.
One example of this duplicity is the Pupil Equity Fund announced by John Swinney in 2016 as “additional money” to close the gap between schools in rich and poor areas. It now transpires that the £120 million a year labelled in this way is included in the total which gives us the £400 million shortfall.
Four thousand fewer teachers, 11 per cent fewer support staff like classroom assistants, 13 per cent fewer additional needs staff ... two years wasted on gimmicky governance reforms, now abandoned, a 7.5 per cent spending cut ... what a shameful record it is.
Does Scotland care enough to force change? Or are we now diminished to the point where, for many, the only qualification that matters is in Higher Flag Waving.