Education in Scotland: Here's what I've learned from talking to opposition politicians about the state of our schools – Cameron Wyllie

Over the past few months, I have made it my business to try and have conversations with politicians about education.

Instead of ‘how was school?’, parents should ask what their children learned that day (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Instead of ‘how was school?’, parents should ask what their children learned that day (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This has been an eye-opening and broadly positive pursuit, a pleasing mixture of my being a retired headteacher and a novice journalist – that is, I have been happy both to listen to what they have to say about the current state of schools in Scotland and to contribute my own, fairly repetitive, somewhat ranty, point of view.

As those who know me will testify – with a weary roll of the eyes – I like to talk. I can talk for Scotland, or – in inter-planetary competitions – for the Planet Earth. You will not be surprised to learn that politicians of all shades can do the same.

So – just to be precise – I have spoken to representatives of the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservatives, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Alba (this last being a lengthy conversation not entirely about education with an old friend). I have made several attempts to contact the Green Party, as yet unsuccessful.

I messaged the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills Shirley-Anne Somerville, who lacked half an hour to speak to me in person, so I spoke to a civil servant from her office instead.

This was a pleasant conversation in which the young man gave away nothing and agreed with everything I said, but I’m not really anticipating that it’ll see the light of day as policy!

The politicians themselves were an impressive bunch, full of vim and – it seemed to me – genuinely interested both in talking about their own impressions of the current situation in education, and in listening to mine.

The Tory very kindly spoke to me from the middle of a ploughed field in his constituency in order to get a decent signal. There was, I think, a light rain, but he persevered, and all credit to him. So I sincerely thank these three gentlemen and the feisty Lib Dem lady for taking the time; the odd thing is they all, more or less said the same two things.

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These are all, of course, opposition politicians, and they all recognise – or this was my impression – that Education (with a big ‘E’) is not a strength in the SNP administration’s playbook.

They also sense that there isn’t going to be much change going on in this field at present: the government doesn’t want to rock this big boat while the constitutional issue (and, to be fair, Covid) loom so large.

One of my panel said that the SNP would think Ms Somerville was doing a good job if education wasn’t on page one, two, three etc of the newspapers.

That seems fair to me – apart from the ongoing issue of the next round of SQA exams, has there really been anything much on education since the publication of the OECD report in which, let’s remember, a number of very distinguished educationalists pointed out that, however admirable the theory (I don’t agree, but let that go for now) Curriculum for Excellence was not working in practice?

So it looks as if, in these terms, Ms Somerville is doing a grand job; it also seems that the opposition parties – to be honest – are a bit scared to raise too much rumpus themselves.

This might be because of the other factor which came up in all these conversations – the difficulty of estimating just how bothered the average Scottish voter is about education.

Obviously, a great many people are worried about Covid, about Europe and about the astonishing fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is Boris Johnson, this latter in particular like part of some long, confusing and ridiculous dream.

Some people are quite clearly very bothered about the independence issue. It’s not hard to see how our schools, our teachers and our students can be relegated to p18 (there will be a pleasing irony if that’s where this is!). Among the public, there is, it seems, a vague perception that things are not great in schools in general, but also an appreciation of the hard work done by teachers in these particularly stressful, virus-ridden times.

Most teachers, I would think, are themselves ready to say that things aren’t what they should be, but since they’re never consulted, they just get on as best as they can.

One of my conversations struck on an interesting idea – that while the average voter might feel that education is not in a happy place, most people are at least reasonably content with the school that their own children go to – in all this we need to remember that the main stakeholders are young people in school now and their parents, ie that a great many voters do not have a direct current interest in education (as opposed to say, health, where every good Scottish hypochondriac, particularly right now, anticipates daily medical intervention).

I have been pondering this imbalance, between the overall gloomy view and the more personal affection for the local school. I think it’s because most parents experience schools through their children (“How was school?” “Fine”) and through parents’ evenings, when dedicated professionals, who like their kids and know them well, want to be as positive as possible.

Maybe at the next one, folks, say to the teachers, once the personal bit is over, “And how are you feeling about your job, education in general, Education Scotland?” and, talking to your kids, drill a bit deeper not about how your child’s day has been (friends, gossip, sport, social media – things that rightly matter to young people) but what they have actually learned that day. That could be very interesting indeed.

Cameron Wyllie writes a blog called A House in Joppa and is on Twitter @wyllie_cameron

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