Allan Massie: SNP’s failure on schools is a dereliction of duty

IT HAS been Alex Salmond’s year, no question about it. He bestrides the narrow world of Scottish politics like a Colossus, and the Independent’s political editor, Steve Richards, yesterday called him “the most talented and self-assured politician in the UK”.

He may be only the First Minister of a subsidiary, devolved government, but he treats the Prime Minister as an equal – if not an inferior. He is well on his way to holding his referendum on the break-up of the United Kingdom, and, though he may not achieve that goal, few doubt that the result of a three-question referendum will leave him with greatly extended powers.

Yet, now that he is well into his fifth year as First Minister, it’s fair to ask what he has achieved of lasting value. What has his government done to improve Scotland? Which of the urgent issues have been addressed? Some, it must be admitted, are beyond his powers. There is little the devolved government can do to stimulate the economy or reform the cumbersome and wasteful system of social security. These are matters still reserved to Westminster.

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But there is one subject for which Holyrood and the Scottish Government have total responsibility – as indeed the Scottish Office had even before devolution. This is education, and there is nothing more important or urgent in Scotland today than effecting improvements in our schools. Yet here the SNP government has done nothing but tinker. To some extent this is understandable. It inherited the new “Curriculum for Excellence” and it will be years before any assessment of it may be fairly made.

Yet nobody can pretend the high reputation which Scottish education once enjoyed is still deserved. Of course there are many good schools and good teachers in Scotland, and some at least of our universities maintain very high standards. But it is equally clear that the present system fails too many children. Too many leave school barely literate, barely numerate, and ill-equipped for adult life. Too many are, as it were, programmed for failure, doomed to unemployment or, at best, to low-skill employment. Many are, in the view of employers, unemployable. They are the casualties of an education system mired in complacency. “The underclass” is an unpleasant term, yet that is what we have created in Scotland: tens of thousands of young people who live badly and have little prospect of ever living better. It is shameful. It is a national scandal, but one we appear content to tolerate.

Beside this, the constitution is insignificant. Independence would mean very little to the young people whose inadequate education has equipped them only for failure. Without a reform of our education system, any constitutional change will not make Scotland a better country. Yet the Scottish Government already has the power to effect such reform, and does nothing. The complacency of our educational establishment is undisturbed.

Attempts to reform schools in England were set in motion by Tony Blair and are now being carried on with enthusiasm by the minister for education in England, Michael Gove, who is an Aberdonian. The Scottish educational establishment showed no interest in Blair’s Academies, set up to take over and regenerate failing schools, and shows no interest in Gove’s programme of Free Schools – self-governing schools financed directly from taxation. These are English experiments and therefore deemed undesirable here in Scotland. They may not be the best way to go, but they do represent a willingness to address a problem which is acute on either side of the Border. In England they are taking action; in Scotland we aren’t.

My view is that a thoroughgoing structural reorganisation is desirable. It is commonly recognised that a great many children leave their primary school happy and self-confident, only to lose their way in the first two years of secondary school. This is sad, but, equally sadly, it is not surprising. They move from a comparatively sheltered environment to an unsheltered one. They move from having had one class teacher to being confronted by a number of teachers, few, perhaps none, of whom have the chance to get to know them as well as their primary school teachers did. Consequently many experience a considerable culture shock for which they are ill-prepared. At the age of 11 they are still children, but are thrown into a world dominated by adolescents.

The independent sector has always reckoned that 11 is too young an age to make this transition. In its schools, children commonly move from their preparatory or junior school at 13, not 11. Even 13-year-olds may find the transition difficult and demanding. It is far more daunting for kids of 11.

If it is generally accepted that the first two years of secondary school are those in which many children go astray, then any programme of reform might start by addressing this question. We should ask whether the two-tier arrangement – primary and secondary schools – is the right one, or whether we might not be better with a three-tier structure: primary, intermediate (from 11 to 14) and senior from 14 upwards. In the intermediate school, children would be free from many of the pressures now experienced in the first years of secondary school. They would be more likely to develop confidence and a sense of responsibility.

Such a change would require a big reorganisation and capital investment in new schools. It might also require some reform of teacher training. It would be a bold leap to take. Yet any government that was really willing to address the inadequacy of things as they are now might at least experiment with it in areas of conspicuous educational failure – in Glasgow, for example.

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The inadequacies of our present system constitute the most serious social problem in Scotland today. A great deal of what is wrong with our country stems from educational failure, and it is grotesque and wicked that so many of our children are programmed for failure in adult life. The powers of the Scottish Government are limited by law in many areas, but in this vital one Alex Salmond and his education team have unlimited power. Failure to address the problem is a dereliction of duty. Beside the issue of an educational system that fails so many children, the constitutional question is, I repeat, of minor importance.