SNP education policy: all talk and no action?

SNP education policy: all talk and no action?

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Thursday 9, February, 2017

NOT THAT LONG AGO, in September 2013, the Scottish Government commissioned a study into the possibility of extending philanthropy in Scottish education. Whilst the main focus of the study was a paper published by Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, three other guest speakers were invited to contribute to the debate at the launch event hosted by the David Hume Institute and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. These guests, who accompanied Professor Paterson, were Martin Evans, the Chief Executive of the Carnegie Foundation, Jim McColl of Clyde Blowers and Alex Wood, former head teacher at Wester Hailes, Edinburgh.

It was a fascinating evening of debate amongst some of Scotland’s foremost educationalists, all of whom had very different things to say about what Scotland needed to do to achieve better educational results. The then Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell, who also spoke that evening, was very enthusiastic about the extension of philanthropy in Scottish education. He said “philanthropists offer dynamism, fresh ideas and energy that could work in the interests of all of Scotland’s children and young people”.

How he must wish that his SNP colleagues had paid some attention to what was said that evening given this week’s headlines from the latest Sutton Trust report which confirms not only what PISA and SSLN have already told us about the appalling attainment gap in Scotland – but also the fact that our brightest and most able pupils are also underperforming in comparison to our international competitors.

Having attended the debate that evening in September 2013 I was inspired by what I  heard; by the common purpose – despite some key differences of approach – to raise standards. The next day’s newspaper reports however, made depressing reading and I know Mike Russell shared the same opinion.

Other key educational establishment groups branded the policy proposals “elitist”, “unworkable”, “anti-Scottish” (nothing could be further from the truth incidentally given the history of Scottish education) and “a dangerous step towards the privatisation of education”.

The reaction was astonishing given the fact that the main policy proposal in Professor Paterson’s paper was to provide a system of equitable bursary support for Scotland’s outstanding pupils, whatever their background. Whether these pupils were academically gifted, showing great promise in the arts or in sport, Professor Paterson was looking for ways to provide long term incentives to philanthropists to provide money to drive excellence in all our schools and most especially to assist pupils who would not otherwise be seen as privileged. He was also looking at ways to develop more specialist schools – schools like the centre of Excellence in Traditional Scottish Music at Plockton High School, Broughton Music School, the Dance School at Knightswood Secondary School or the Bellahouston Academy of Sport.

Very regrettably, the criticism from the doom-mongers was sufficient to prevent the policy proposals being taken any further. How the current First Minister must rue the day – at least I hope she does.

Not only is the recent Sutton Trust report yet more evidence of the extent of the attainment gap but it also flags up the fact that we are letting down our brightest and best. That, to me, is on exactly the same level as letting down our pupils in the weaker cohorts. It is also a worry at a time when university entrance is becoming ever more competitive because demand so strongly outweighs the supply of places and because of the inequity within Scottish Government funding policies that depend on the capping system for domiciled Scots.

The long line of poor attainment results in recent years is exactly what has led to the current governance review and what needs to change in Scottish education. 

If there is one thing that stands out a mile it is the need for much greater diversity in Scottish education. The cost of imposing uniformity via comprehensive education (which was mistakenly taken for the same thing as imposing equality of opportunity) has been the complete failure of the school system to inspire innovation, imagination and creativity, and diversity of organisation and funding – including that for bursaries.

Anyone who visits Newlands Junior College in Glasgow cannot fail to be impressed by what can be achieved if philanthropy is allowed to flourish, yet the SNP is strangely mute about plans elsewhere for new types of schools in education. Given all the evidence of what is clearly not working for Scottish schools and all the evidence about what is working, the only explanation for the SNP’s inaction – particularly after what Mike Russell said in 2013 – must be the fear of upsetting the dominant elements of the educational establishment.

We all know John Swinney has too much on his plate just now trying to address all the challenges in Scottish education but, like Mike Russell, he sends out the message that he wants to base education policy on clear evidence of what works and what does not work. That evidence is plain for all to see so will he have the courage of his convictions and make the radical changes required?

Well, that big test is the outcome of his governance review and, of course, the reaction of the First Minister.

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