Parents should be given a real choice of schools
Tony Blair once issued the mantra “education, education, education”. It seems as though Scotland’s political parties are beginning to wake up to the fact that all is not well in Scotland’s education system. There is a real and well-founded concern about declining standards, lack of aspiration and above all a kind of educational apartheid which means that if you are rich enough you can either send your child to a private school (as do one third of Edinburgh parents) or buy a house in the catchment area of a “good” school.
As well as the cold facts and figures there are the ongoing stories which indicate a failing system. I think of a brilliant German lecturer who gave up her career to become a secondary school teacher only to give up in despair after a year of what she termed glorified babysitting. Or the primary school teacher who, after her first year, became disillusioned because the local education authority moved teachers around more as a paper exercise and without apparent awareness of local conditions and the needs of the teachers and pupils. Or another who resigned after being assaulted for the third time – by primary pupils! The lack of parental involvement, the remodeling of schools into centres for social engineering rather than education, the low morale amongst many teachers, and the obsession of politicians with figures and targets, are all indications of a struggling system. So what is the solution? Perhaps we should swallow our pride and consider what other nations do.
The United Nations Charter on Human Rights declares in Article 26 that “everyone has the right to education”’ and that “education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages”. It also states as an absolute principle that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”.
The ECHR Protocol 1 Article 2, states “in the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the rights of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”. Although this is now part of the Human Rights Act which the government wants to abolish, there is an opt out which Britain has which states that the government recognises this “only so far as it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure”.
But the question is whether the current system does provide the most efficient instruction and training. And it certainly does not allow choice. The Scottish state education system with its one-size-fits-all mantra is driven by a centrist secularist ideology which means that for most parents we simply do not have the choice that is our right. For a country that desires to be “progressive”, it seems that we are ignoring what other progressive countries do.
In the Netherlands, for example, more than two thirds of government-funded schools are independent, most of them Catholic or Protestant schools. Why could such a system not exist here? At the launch of the new Solas magazine in Edinburgh, it was clear that the people present, politicians, church leaders and others, recognised the importance of this issue. We believe that there is an overwhelming need for it and that if politicians would just break away from the straitjacket of their ideologies, the EIS and local education authorities, and instead engage with some creative thinking, they would be able to do great good for Scotland’s pupils.
The recent attempt to whip up anti-Creationist hysteria was not so much a concern about the teaching of science, but rather the fear that somewhere someone in Scotland was teaching that the creation might have actually had a Creator. We have moved within a lifetime from a country where schools had regular acts of Christian worship and promoted Christian values, to one where in many areas prayer is banned and any talk of God, except in the most mocking terms, is frowned upon. I have experienced personally and heard many stories of children from Christian homes whose faith has been openly mocked in class.
However our major concern is not so much with protecting Christians as it is with serving the poor. If churches were allowed to return to the vision of John Knox (where there is a church, there should be a school), then a huge army of volunteers and resources would be unleashed for the good of all, not just the privileged few. Christians build and support schools. Atheistic secularists take them over, cuckoo like. We call upon the Scottish government to give us back our schools, to establish a voucher system or equivalent, and to give parents choice. Will any politician take up the challenge?
• David Robertson is director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity www.solas-cpc.org