Euan McColm: Hands up who has a plan to fix failing schools

Education Secretary John Swinney deserves the cooperation needed to bring about meaningful reform. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
Education Secretary John Swinney deserves the cooperation needed to bring about meaningful reform. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
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The SNP must carry the can for the decline in literacy and numeracy, but without a radical new strategy their opponents can do no better, writes Euan McColm

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s request to be judged on her government’s stewardship of Scotland’s education system is in danger of being granted.

Despite making improving standards in schools part of her mission, she is still waiting for good news on that front. In fact, recent years have seen the troubling decline of standards in both numeracy and literacy. Last week, it emerged that fewer than half of 13 and 14-year-olds are able to write well.

Something has gone wrong in Scotland’s schools and there is no evidence to suggest the SNP has a solution.

Voters inclined to do as the First Minister wishes would have been forgiven for judging her harshly last week.

Naturally, opposition parties at Holyrood seized on the intolerable state of affairs in the education system to attack the Scottish nationalists’ record. The SNP could offer little by way of a credible defence; having been in government for a decade, the Scottish Nationalists can hardly point the finger of blame at anyone else. Education is a fully devolved matter and the SNP is liable for the crisis – and it is a crisis – in Scottish classrooms.

But, while the opposition parties were perfectly entitled to unleash hell upon Education Secretary John Swinney and Sturgeon, it is not at all clear how performance in schools might be better under a different administration.

All of Scotland’s mainstream politicians are complicit in the declining standards which mean ever fewer young people are prepared either for the workplace or for the rigours of university study when they leave school.

In election campaign after election campaign, all parties have engaged in a damaging Dutch auction on class sizes, each offering guarantees that are proving impossible to meet. The class sizes obsession exposes the lack of serious thought senior politicians have given to education in recent years. It’s a sound-bite policy to which parents eagerly respond. Who wouldn’t want their kids to have the greatest degree of personal attention possible, after all?

Smaller class sizes do make a difference. But they are not necessarily the answer for all children.

Kids growing up in wealthy households, will, by and large, do fine in a larger classroom. Kids who come from poorer backgrounds, where home life may be chaotic, could dearly do with the extra attention.

Other complex issues – the propensity for some boys to go off the rails during the years around the transition from primary to secondary, for example – have not been properly addressed, while parents and teachers alike continue to raise concerns about the Curriculum for Excellence.

For the next month, parties in Scotland will make quite the issue of education. Quite right, too.

But if MSPs are at all serious about driving up standards in schools then the rules of engagement must change once the election is out of the way.

The SNP should start spending some of the hoard of political capital that’s slowly evaporating in the First Minister’s safe. That means being willing to think about more radical solutions.

A group of parents in Milngavie has asked to be allowed to run their own local school. Swinney has yet to give a decision on this request (he is really is dragging things out), but surely this is precisely the sort of thing we should be putting to the test.

There is, especially among Labour and SNP ranks, long-held opposition to the idea of schools opting out of local authority control.

In England, free schools – run as charities – have been praised both for the quality of education they provide and for driving up standards in nearby local authority-run schools.

Teachers can be resistant to change. This is entirely understandable, given the pressure under which so many are now working. But if reform is to be possible, the profession will have to get on board with the idea of change.

If opposition politicians are serious about the matter then their role must be more than one of relentlessly attacking. The state of our education system demands some serious debate, carried out in good faith.

No solution should be off the table, whether it’s empowering communities to run their own schools or making it easier for headteachers to get rid of underperforming staff – and to properly reward those who excel. Everything should be up for grabs.

When I was a kid, the story went that a Scottish education was the best in the world. Of course, there was more than a little misty-eyed nostalgia in that once popular version of events, but we can say with certainty that it used to be a damned sight better than it is now.

Swinney is, by a country mile, the First Minister’s most capable colleague. His appointment to the education brief after nine years at Finance was the clearest possible sign that Sturgeon wished her crusade to drive up educational standards to have, at the very least, an outside chance of success.

Once the general election is over, it is all but a certainty that the focus of Scottish politics will return to the constitution. What a pity education won’t take centre stage.

Even his opponents rate Swinney as a principled and sincere man. This being so, the SNP and its opponents working together to bring about real and meaningful reform to the education system is a tantalising possibility. A little trust between participants on this issue would go a very long way indeed.

The failure of MSPs to think radically about how we create an education system fit for the times is a betrayal of young Scots. They have all the potential their predecessors had in the days when attainment was higher. So, if the kids aren’t the problem, the system is.

Getting standards in numeracy and literacy back up to acceptable levels will be a mammoth task. Unless politicians change the way they engage on this subject, it will also be an unachievable one.