Imagine if in the eighties Margaret Thatcher had said in her election pitch that her number one priority was to cut unemployment – and then her government presided over its steep and painful rise. She would not have lasted a single term rather than be elected to three on the trot.
Thatcher was always careful to make promises she believed in and was committed to delivering, hence she talked about reforming the economy and creating the opportunity for the private sector to create real and lasting jobs. Ultimately the economy turned her way, productivity improved and after the initial rise in unemployment the new jobs began to outnumber the redundancies. It is thanks to her initial reforms, particularly the emasculation of trade union privileges, that we now have what is being referred to as contemporary full employment.
Imagine also if in the late nineties Tony Blair had said in his first election “education, education, education” and then proceeded to completely ignore the issue to concentrate instead on reform of the Lords or preparing Britain for the adoption of the new Euro currency. He could never have gone on to win three terms in a row.
Blair was, like Thatcher, careful to make promises he was confident he could keep, even if he was not fully committed to them himself. And so it was that he delivered some of the most sweeping educational reforms that empowered individual schools and their headteachers, allowed schools to specialise in particular subjects and break away from local authority control. It is thanks to his initial reforms, especially the expansion of foundation schools, that England not only caught up with Scottish education but overtook it and has left it behind in the only thing that really matters, the level of pupil ability as measured by attainment.
Those in Scotland’s own current education debate that cannot recognise this inconvenient truth and are unwilling to learn from it are part of the problem and cannot offer the solution.
Imagine then a First Minster of Scotland who said in an election campaign that, “improving Scotland’s education system should be the number one priority of the next Scottish government” and went even further by accepting “if re-elected as First Minister I will ask to be judged on my success in achieving this”. Could any leader of a party be so brazen, so insincere and so deceitful as to play the electorate by telling it what they wanted to hear but not care a jot and always be focussed on another priority?
Could our Scottish broadcast media be so compliant that it would not hold such a politician to account? Would Thatcher and Blair have got away with stating that education was their “number one priority” only to focus on personal constitutional hobby-horses? Yet that is precisely what our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has thus far managed to do without being held to account or subject to justifiable media outrage.
Like any country, our children are our most valuable asset. Their potential is not only what offers them and their families a bright future, it is also what can preserve all that is good about our past, our society now and provide for the older generations that have made great sacrifices for their opportunities.
That after nearly ten years of the SNP managing Scotland’s education one in five pupils leaves primary school functionally illiterate is as damning as it gets. That Scotland, once ranked the best in the world, has fallen from tenth to 19th in Science, 11th to 23rd in reading and 11th to 24th in maths is disgraceful.
Yet rather than focus on the most important issue facing the country our First Minster chooses to stoke the fires of grievance and division by staging a photograph of herself writing a letter about her real priority – the holding of a second independence referendum that the Scottish public simply does not want.
The Conservatives have flagged the Scottish Government, elected on its promise of education as a first priority, has not had education discussed in its own time since October while giving 43 hours to independence and postponing its education bill. Meanwhile Labour has pointed out that over £1 billion has been cut from education budgets by the SNP since 2010.
It is not as if there is a shortage of ideas in Scotland or examples from beyond our borders of what can be done to improve our standards of education. Scotland’s own Hometown Foundation is known to have submitted a number of business plans supported by parents for pilot schools that could provide new models for community-led education. The detailed paperwork has lain in John Swinney’s pending tray gathering dust while great effort is expended for overseas visits by Nicola Sturgeon to Europe and now the United States.
To Swinney’s credit he has voiced his personal concerns about the weaknesses in Scottish schooling – but this only begs the question that I have heard so often in education circles – “why is Swinney holding back?” The answers vary from changes he might want to bring forward being blocked by Sturgeon, to him facing opposition in the run up to this May’s council elections from Scotland’s own educational blob – the self-interested teaching unions and local authorities that fear losing control and influence. If John Swinney cannot deliver on his promise for greater devolution to headteachers, teachers, parents and pupils is the SNP only good for providing independence referenda?
Fortunately the message from abroad is encouraging. Rather than wait on public sector reform new low-cost independent schools are springing up doing for education what Ryanair and easyJet have done for air travel. As Newcastle’s Professor James Tooley has shown, these new schools in Africa and Asia can often outperform their far costlier state sector competitors.
If the SNP leadership does not deliver the change it promised then, just as disaffected electorates voted for Brexit and Donald Trump, Scottish parents should take matters into their own hands by finding partners to set up their own schools. Change will come, either through the SNP or without them.
l Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org