Joyce McMillan: Education reform a thankless task

It is a big ask for new education minister John Swinney to lead a revolution in educational management. Picture: PA
It is a big ask for new education minister John Swinney to lead a revolution in educational management. Picture: PA
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NICOLA Sturgeon may talk the talk on overhauling the schools system, but are the SNP really up for it, asks Joyce McMillan

On Wednesday of this week, the First Minister stood up in the Scottish Parliament and set out her government’s priorities for the next five years. As ever, her presentation was a credit to her party and to herself; a decent, sensible, centre-left list of aspirations aimed at achieving social justice and equal opportunities, with sustainability, while still well worth a mention, slightly lower on the agenda than it was during the referendum campaign two years ago.

Admittedly, even Nicola Sturgeon’s strongest supporter would be hard put to call it an exciting speech, despite some final thoughts about democracy, empowerment, and building a cross-party consensus for a better Scotland, that seemed genuine and deeply felt. Apart from a line or two about the SNP’s undoubted right to continue campaigning for independence, there was almost nothing in the speech with which any Scottish government since 1999 could have disagreed; in common with most speeches of this kind, it had little to say about the nuts and bolts of how positive change might be achieved.

And it was not difficult, either to spot the speech’s greatest weakness; because the First Minister had decided to put it front and centre, as the key theme of her address. Her priority - like Tony Blair’s, at the beginning of his premiership - was education, education, education; yet apart from her major commitment to closing the persistent “attainment gap” between wealthier and more deprived areas - a long-standing priority doubtless shared by her deputy leader and new education secretary, John Swinney - she seemed, like the Blair of that early period, to have hardly any clear idea of what principal problems need to be addressed, or how a radical improvement in our educational system might actually be achieved.

There is certainly a strong backbeat of negative comment, in Scotland, to the effect that our education system - along with the Scottish NHS - has ‘descended into chaos’ under the SNP, although the use of such exaggerated language hardly encourages serious debate. Yet at the same time, almost every parent whose child has come through the state school system in Scotland seems to add that their own children have actually done very well, and achieved all their ambitions in terms of higher education; and overall, there seems to be a distinct lack of consensus about just how good or bad our state education system actually is.

So here, as a contribution to the discussion, are a couple of first thoughts about what might be serious problems affecting Scotland’s educational performance. The first concerns the number of gifted people I have seen, over the past generation, simply walk away from schoolteaching; and the fact that in the last decade or two, the near-universal complaint of those who have quit is not about their students, but about toxic levels of bad management at school and departmental level. I have no way of diagnosing exactly what may have caused this apparent epidemic of bad leadership, although I suspect it has something to do with the post-1980s imposition on the public sector of flaccid management jargon, and of an accompanying plague of power-point presentations and beige conference culture.

Somehow, though, it seems to have led to a situation where in at least some schools, those most likely to rise to senior management positions are precisely those with the least imagination, the least originality, and the least talent as classroom teachers, who then proceed to make life unbearable for those who are still talking in real language about real children, and the real task of educating them. And although the First Minister’s promised effort to “give headteachers more power” might conceivably, in the long term, attract more inspiring candidates to the job, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that there may be something systemic in the language and methods of modern public sector management that actively repels the most able and imaginative people, and that would now take a real cultural revolution to shift.

Then secondly, there is the matter of the mainstreaming of children with special needs, generally seen as a good thing in principle, but often, so it seems, very poorly implemented, with a chronic shortage of the dedicated classroom assistance the children need. If, as seems likely, the average 8-9 per cent rate of special needs children is higher in areas of multiple deprivation, then it seems to me that the presence in class of larger-than-average numbers of special needs children, without adequate staff to support them, could be a major multiplier of poor performance in these schools, absorbing huge amounts of teacher time, particularly since a rising proportion of children with special needs now suffer from potentially disruptive behavioural problems.

And those are just two among dozens of issues that are constantly raised in everyday conversations about Scotland’s education system, yet rarely mentioned in formal political debate about it. I have no idea whether John Swinney has the guts, and the intellectual energy, to lead a revolution in educational management that will help keep creative and talented people in teaching, or to insist that mainstreaming be properly funded, or - for that matter - to challenge the idea that every school-leaver should aspire to go to university, when many would obviously be happier going to work, and training on the job.

What is clear, though, is that these are profound questions about our society, its priorities, and its way of managing itself, which cannot be resolved by a few shifts in education policy, and will not be resolved within any five-year electoral term. The best Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney can hope for, in other words, is that people will look back 25 years from now, and identify this half-decade as the time when Scottish education developed a new, clear and inspiring 21st century vision of how to organise and manage itself, for the benefit of every child; it’s a task that will bring them many political brickbats, and little electoral benefit.

Yet if they succeed, then at least history will bless them; and their willingness to accept that fate is something to be admired, in the world of instant, disposable policy-making that has come to dominate 21st century politics, to the detriment of us all.