Tom Peterkin: Waging a class war will not solve crisis in the classroom

John Swinney has a huge challenge to sort education but should steer clear of the private sector, says Tom Peterkin

Scotlands education system is in crisis but hammering the private sector while affluent parents can afford to buy access to the best state schools seems to be missing the point.
Scotlands education system is in crisis but hammering the private sector while affluent parents can afford to buy access to the best state schools seems to be missing the point.

The crescendo of criticism of Scotland’s schooling system that has built up over the past few days should leave no-one in any doubt of the scale of the challenges facing John Swinney.

When the education secretary stood up to make a key speech on his education reforms yesterday, the concerns of teachers, academics and parents must have been ringing in his ears.

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Long-standing anxieties about the education system and its failings have fast become a touchstone issue for the Scottish Government, a decade on from the SNP first getting into power.

The parlous and unsatisfactory state of so many aspects of the system does not reflect well on successive SNP administrations and, like an oil tanker, it will take time and effort to turn round.

The latest spate of anguished breast-beating over the decline of a once-proud system was prompted by the difficulties faced by Trinity Academy.

The idea that a school serving one of Edinburgh’s leafiest areas should be struggling to recruit maths teachers struck a particular chord. If schools like Trinity were struggling to recruit teachers, how must those in the most deprived areas be faring?

Then there was the trickle of experts giving their verdicts on the state of Scotland’s education system.

“Depressing” was the description of Professor Gavin McCrone, the eminent economist who thrashed out a widely praised teachers’ pay deal in the early days of devolution.

UK government austerity and the “never-ending stream” of Scottish Government initiatives were at the root of the current difficulties.

From the chalk-face, Mark Wilson, a Yes-voting biology teacher at Dunfermline High School, wrote an open letter to Nicola Sturgeon which was scathing about the Scottish Government’s flagship education reform Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

According to Mr Wilson, CfE was a “disaster” for pupils and teachers as he warned that “never-ending bureaucracy” was preventing teachers from doing their jobs properly.

It is a sentiment shared by Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, one of the country’s foremost experts in education policy, who has complained that CfE lacks academic rigour and contributes to “dumbing down”.

This lack of rigour, according to Professor Paterson, will make the attainment gap between the academic performance of children from better off families and their poorer counterparts more difficult to close. His argument is that the better-off children will have traditional academic virtues passed on by their well-educated parents while poorer children, whose parents through no fault of their own did not benefit from an old-fashioned education, will be left by the wayside.

Ms Sturgeon has made closing this iniquitous attainment gap a key aspiration of her government. While the Scottish Government grapples with this challenging and exceptionally important ambition, there is a suspicion that ministers may have the private school sector in their sights.

The Barclay review on business rates commissioned by the Scottish Government has recommended that independent schools should pay the full whack of the levy.

Ken Barclay, the former RBS chairman, has called for an end to the relief arrangement that sees private schools pay 20 per cent of their business rates bill because of their charitable status.

Even though he has adopted most of the Barclay recommendations, finance secretary Derek Mackay has delayed making a decision on rates relief for private schools until December. There is a left-leaning constituency within the SNP that disapproves of private education.

But whatever one’s view of fee-paying schools, slapping hundreds of thousands of pounds extra on a private school’s business rates bill would do nothing to help the education system at large – in fact, quite the reverse.

The scale of the tax hikes that schools face should the Scottish Government adopt the Barclay recommendations would inevitably drive up fees. Worst affected would not be the mega rich. It would be those parents who scrimp, save and make enormous sacrifices to give their children the best education possible.

In Edinburgh, for example, around 25 per cent of children are taught in the independent sector. Just think of the pressure put on an already over-stretched state system if even just a small proportion of parents decided they could no longer afford the fees at their children’s schools. Furthermore, ideological objections to the private sector ring rather hollow when one considers that a decent education can be “bought” in the state system by better off parents.

In Scotland’s big cities, the better off have the means of improving their children’s life chances by either paying school fees or buying a more expensive property in the catchment area of a high-performing state school.

This week a report from the Bank of Scotland put figures on the middle class obsession with which postcode delivers the best education. Apparently, £41,447 is the average property premium a parent will pay to get their child into a leading state school.

So the state sytem itself is anything but a level playing field.

Rather than hammering private schools, more must be done to nurture schools in the most deprived areas otherwise children there will continue to lose out in life’s lottery.