Brian Wilson: History lesson for the uneducated

Angela Constance's hamfisted intervention highlighted SNP's failure to learn from past Labour successes. Picture: Neil Hanna
Angela Constance's hamfisted intervention highlighted SNP's failure to learn from past Labour successes. Picture: Neil Hanna
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SNP must do homework on education, or risk failing the most disadvantaged children, writes Brian Wilson

Let’s hope the question of how well Scottish education serves our society, and particularly its less prosperous members, might finally achieve some sustained political attention.

I’m astonished any education minister would quote such a daft statistic

A slew of appalling statistics has forced it on to the agenda and the challenge for anyone who cares about social justice is to keep it there. Education is the key to determining lifelong advantage and disadvantage in Scotland, just like anywhere else.

Scotland used to boast of the finest, most egalitarian education system in the world. The claim may have exceeded reality but there were seeds of historical truth which reflected societal values. These need to be constantly cultivated rather than replaced with a catalogue of empty boasts.

It has apparently come as a shock that more children are failing to meet literacy and numeracy standards. For most of them, what happens in universities ceases to be of personal relevance before the age of ten. The attainment gap in secondary is then widening rather than narrowing, with pitifully few children from poorer areas emerging with decent qualifications.

It is true, of course, that there are people who can neither read nor count who go on to do great things in life. However, the odds against them fulfilling their potential are immeasurably greater than if they had been able to acquire these building blocks.

The fact so many fail to do so is a national scandal of the first order. To put it mildly, it has not been treated in that way – which is why the statistics are getting worse, not better. This often represents a vicious inter-generational spiral which can only be addressed if it is treated as the highest priority with the necessary resources allocated to address it.

The charge against the current Scottish Government is not that they created these challenges but that they have done so shockingly little over the past eight years to acknowledge them. On the contrary, their educational priorities have largely ignored the bottom end of the scale while their wider agenda towards local government has created silent but costly damage in our schools.

This week, the education secretary, Angela Constance, sallied forth to acknowledge that a problem does exist. Ms Constance’s most obvious virtue is that she is not Michael Russell, her unlamented predecessor who revelled in educational elitism. Ms Constance’s foray turned into a bit of fiasco with the aid of a semi-literate press release and a downright stupid attack on teachers.

Only 20 per cent of secondary teachers, she claimed “think that reading and writing is vital to their curriculum area”. Ms Constance added: “I’m astonished at this, frankly”.

Well, I’m astonished, frankly, that any education minister would quote such a daft statistic without doing some homework. I have never met a teacher who does not think that standards of literacy and numeracy are relevant to a pupil’s ability to learn and I have met plenty who despair at the problems they inherit as a result.

I know the new orthodoxy is that nothing worth mentioning happened in Scotland prior to the triumph of Nationalism. However, let me take her back to the late 1990s and my own brief tenure as Scottish education minister prior to devolution. We didn’t have a lot of money – about half the Scottish Government’s current budget – but we did have a sense of mission about reversing educational disadvantage.

So we introduced classroom assistants – 5,000 of them over three years to take the administrative burdens off teachers and give them some much-needed support. We did the same with learning support staff to assist those with additional educational needs. It is interesting now that the Scottish Government refuses to give national numbers for these staff, saying it is a matter for local authorities. But everybody knows there have been huge cuts.

Back then, we also introduced an Early Intervention programme. I remember the profound impression it made on me when I visited a school in Edinburgh, with the late Elizabeth Maginnis, where Early Intervention was being piloted for very young children. This involved a lot of additional support including the involvement of parents who desperately wanted to deliver better opportunities for their children but themselves needed help to do so.

I learned two things that day about Early Intervention. First, that it worked. Second, that it was very resource-intensive and would cost a lot of money if done properly. That is still the case – which is why it scarcely exists in most of Scotland having been re-packaged time and again into broader programmes with the original focus largely lost.

Yet Early Intervention is the essential key to reversing these awful statistics – long before the errant secondary teachers referred to by Ms Constance are faced with the outcomes of failure to give these children a decent start.

All the initiatives which were capable of making things better for children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Scotland’s schools have been slashed due to the pincer movement from two pillars of SNP policy – first the council tax freeze and second the abolition of ring-fencing which has left hard-pressed councils to do the dirty work of removing non-statutory provision in schools and elsewhere. Without ring-fencing, in the current climate, programmes like classroom assistants, additional needs support and Early Intervention are guaranteed casualties. Special Needs education is another soft target but that is a story in its own right.

All of the SNP’s educational focus has been on boasts about not having tuition fees for those who go to university. Hopefully Ms Constance will have the humility to understand that this trophy is not worth much to the poor kids left behind in the first years of primary school. And, of course, it is a highly dubious boast even on its own terms.

There are now a higher proportion of low-income students going to university in England than in Scotland because every university feels the need to attract them and can afford to do so. Meanwhile, far from abolishing student debt for Scottish students as promised, the SNP has more than doubled it from £2,360 a head in 2007-8 to £5,020 in 2013-14 and rising.

So let’s keep education on the front pages. And if it’s a fairer society we want, let’s start with the kids who can’t read or count – not with universities. It’s a long haul but worth every penny.