State of education the biggest example of failure of Scottish devolution - Brian Monteith

There is no bigger example of the failure of Scottish devolution than the current state of education across our schools.

The problems are there for all to see in plain sight and cannot be wished away.

Let me be clear, the blame for the deterioration lies not with the teachers, but with politicians, in particular our politicians in Holyrood and the executive that calls itself the Scottish Government.

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If it is a government then it has to take ownership of the mess that is its creation and has happened on its watch.

A student raises their hand to ask a question in class. Picture: Getty Images
A student raises their hand to ask a question in class. Picture: Getty Images

Devolution has existed for 22 years now – a generation you might say – so please let’s not go blaming Westminster or prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May or Boris Johnson.

Scottish education is literally made in Scotland. It always has been, even when the old Scottish Office was run by parties not having a majority of MPs in Scotland due respect was given to the Scottish educational institutions.

I can say without fear of correction that had devolution never happened, our standards of attainment by pupils would now be far higher and we would not be talking of an education crisis.

It is no coincidence the OECD has not been called upon to produce a report on English education. No, it is Scottish education, run by Scottish politicians that has been found wanting.

Considering the years 1999-2010 when Labour was in power or following 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition existed, and then the full-blown Conservative governments after 2015, there is no reason to expect the major errors that were made would have happened if it had been left to the old Scottish Office run by MPs.

Indeed, we might even have had some of the positive educational reforms that started under Blair and were carried on by successive governments.

Instead, when devolution came there was a period when any previous Conservative educational policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, no matter how effective, no matter how popular with parents, were rolled back. It was educational vandalism based upon political spite against all things “Toarrie” no matter their value.

For instance, nursery school vouchers opened up the market to cater for the latent demand for nursery places that until then had never been satisfied by the state.

School boards gave parents a real say in decisions about how schools were managed, such as who might be recruited – while the power and importance of HM Inspectorate of Schools was elevated and used as means to promote best practice to good effect.

Not just schools, but local authority education managers were being inspected and failings exposed so that they might be corrected in response to public alarm.

All such policies were abolished or effectively neutralised so that it became impossible to see what was happening in Scottish schools.

Playing to an anti-Tory gallery that undoubtedly had some anti-English sentiment based upon a claimed superiority and exceptionalism of Scottish education, the vandalism was initially instigated by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive and cheered on by the SNP.

But once in power the SNP ramped up the process, most notably taking Scottish schools out of two international comparative rankings and, in 2011, taming the inspectorate by burying it in a merger with Learning and Teaching Scotland to form Education Scotland.

Both moves were designed to obfuscate what was happening in Scottish education and make it easier for ruling politicians to do as they wished.

The publication of the OECD report last week was important not so much for what it said, but more for how it now gives the politicians an opportunity to fess up, admit they have been getting it wrong and start a new journey of returning Scottish education to a place where we can be proud of it again.

The fact the report was welcomed by the SNP Government and is being used as new starting point is no coincidence. The OECD report was itself heavily restricted by its authors only being able to hear or see what the Scottish Government wanted it to know and its conclusions are therefore curated rather than wholly independent.

Nevertheless, we have just had an election and the main culprits have been rewarded with more time in power – in part by ensuring the OECD report could not hurt them – so we should now encourage bi-partisan working between the parties so the best remedies can be found and introduced.

The education of our children demands it, if re-establishing higher standards can be achieved by de-politicising the necessary actions then that must be what our politicians do.

It was, after all, the politicisation of previous necessary reforms that got us into many of the difficulties we now face, thus the new education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville should seize the opportunity to reach out to her shadow MSPs on the opposition benches to seek cross-party support.

She can do this by going far further than what she has announced thus far by recognising she is flying her department blind.

Professor Lindsay Paterson, writing in response to the OECD report on ThinkScotland.org, has explained how there is just not the data available to provide the knowledge of what should be done.

This requires immediate action and the commissioning of Prof Paterson to work on initiatives that would restore the collection of such vital information would be a good place for the education secretary to start.

By this time next year we shall know what Somerville is made of. For our children’s future we must wish her well.

- Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.

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