SNP rhetoric on education is failing Joe Biden's test of politicians' real priorities – Barry Black

The amount of money being spent on education does not match the Scottish Government’s warm words

The political rhetoric on education in Scotland and the reality of what is happening in classrooms live on different planets. There have always been levels of truth in that statement, but the real consequences of the recently passed Scottish Government Budget and its weak vision for reform unveiled earlier this month make for grim reading for pupils, teachers, their schools and their communities.

US President Joe Biden once said his father had an expression: “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Politics is always stripped apart, laid bare, by the reality of public policy: pounds, pence, staff and resources. When applied to the Budget, and its impact on Scottish education, there is very little of positive value to note indeed.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Faced with the option of freezing council tax – a measure which predominantly benefits the well-off – and giving local authorities, which fund our schools, something like a fair financial settlement, the Scottish Government chose the former. The consequences have the potential to be severe. Any and all rhetoric about education being a number one priority, or a defining mission, is merely now a matter of historical record, with no basis in reality. This Budget is a final nail in the coffin of that near-decade-long pretence. And the education reform process –conducted through a series of deep reviews over a number of years – is stuck in limbo and unlikely to be finished.

The words of US President Joe Biden, seen meeting school children in Dublin, should inform the debate about education in Scotland (Picture: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)The words of US President Joe Biden, seen meeting school children in Dublin, should inform the debate about education in Scotland (Picture: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
The words of US President Joe Biden, seen meeting school children in Dublin, should inform the debate about education in Scotland (Picture: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of teachers facing redundancy

Measuring the rhetoric against the reality in perspective shows us that something has gone far wrong in the policy process. While there is an active Scottish Government commitment to recruit 3,500 more teachers by 2026, Glasgow City Council faces making 450 of the current workforce redundant by then, and many more councils are facing the same choices.

Parliament has been considering how best to widen curricular opportunity, while some councils are having to consider actively cutting the length of the school week. The First Minister has reaffirmed a commitment to “keep The Promise” to individuals with experience of care, while one of the most successful mentoring programmes for those young people in the country faces savage cuts. Those of us who can be bothered to read and engage with the reality know that teachers are facing escalating violence in their classrooms, all while any real action is subject to continual dither and delay.

What this means is that the culmination of nearly a decade of being told that education is a government priority in this country, of election-defining promises to close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest, is savage cuts to core provision in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the county. This continual race to the bottom strips away far more than the sum of its parts, and we lose things far more valuable than the money that is being taken out.

Progress on roadmap stalled

Beyond finances too, the rhetoric on education reform is removed from the reality of its glacial (at best) progress. There had been hope that the Hayward Review of examination and assessment would begin to address some of the identified issues of how disjointed assessment currently sits with the structure of the curriculum. However, eight months after its publication, there has still been no official government response. The replacement of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland was announced in 2021, but both organisations are no closer to their reincarnations.

This is not how progress should feel. There is a route forward through these issues, but it must begin with rhetoric meeting reality. What is needed in an acceptance of where things have gone wrong, and a full and frank assessment of where things need to go. That roadmap exists through the already published reviews which were based on thousands of hours of work, several formal review processes and inquiries, and tens of thousands of voices.

UK austerity

Just as urgently is the need for investment and resources within the system. The much-needed changes to governance, structures, and the curriculum are meaningless if there are fewer teachers in classrooms and fewer opportunities available in education for our young people. For much of the last decade, as council budgets have been cut, there have been resources provided by central government that are designed to tackle key policy priority areas, such as pupil equity funding which gives schools money depending on the number of disadvantaged pupils in attendance. While well intentioned, it has failed to achieve its policy aims of closing the attainment gap – at all – and in many instances has been used to backfill cuts to local budgets.

We know the Scottish Government has a tight budget. We can be under no illusions of the disastrous impact of UK Government austerity and how it has slashed the social safety net we once knew, and devastated communities across the UK. However, over the past decade, the revenue budget of Scottish local government has increased at twice the rate that it has passed on to councils. You can’t prioritise education while refusing to resource the authorities who fund schools. Surely, in these trying times, the rhetoric on priorities must be translated into the reality of public policy delivery.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Looking at the Budget, there is a simple truth to be seen by all. Cuts to council budgets are cuts to schools. Until we see that change, we know this government does not value any real progress in our classrooms.

Barry Black is a postgraduate researcher in education at the University of Glasgow



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.