IT HAS OFTEN been said over the past two years that the political classes’ relentless obsession with constitution matters would result in bread and butter issues such as education being neglected. Research unveiled this week by the Scottish Conservatives demonstrates that the SNP's obsession over its shopping list of new powers for the Scottish Parliament has resulted in the eye being taken off the ball in terms of utilising the powers Holyrood already has.
Education spending has done well under devolution. Spending per pupil has more than doubled since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Unfortunately, educational outcomes have far from followed suit.
A series of Freedom of Information requests lodged with local authorities across Scotland has shown that secondary school education remains very much a postcode lottery, and actually constitutes a quasi-private system in which affluent parents can gain access to better schools through buying an expensive property within its catchment area, whereas conscientious but less affluent parents have no choice but to put up and shut up. We simply cannot tolerate this sad state of affairs. These parents need an advocate on their side. Someone who will stand up for hardworking Scots and their equally hardworking children who are being failed by the system.
Unfortunately, for those children most in need of a sound education to gain a fair crack at the whip – for those kids who do not have the second or third chances afforded to them by wealthy, well-connected families – the leftwing consensus in Scotland and the teaching unions are failing them at their first hurdle.
For example, in the Stirling Council region, 66% of teens in the wealthiest fifth of families can expect to leave secondary education with five or more credit level passes at Standard Grade examination. Only 12.7% of the poorest fifth do. That's 53 kids in every 100 being failed by the system – the system which was supposed to eradicate disadvantage, be all-encompassing, and offer disadvantaged kids a hand up. In other words, a system that was supposed to be comprehensive.
The Left's meddling with the next generation of Scots' life chances has been a comprehensive failure. Wholesale reform of our education system from primary through to higher education is required, and the only party which will have both the will and the ability to implement the necessary changes is one which can stand up for parents and stand up against the Unions.
Even after disregarding the various levels of parental wealth, the discrepancy across Scotland's local authorities remains stark. Overall, only 14.7% of Clackmannanshire teenagers achieved the benchmark, versus 70.7% in East Renfrewshire. Inequality of wealth aside, different local authorities are performing at hugely different levels.
The questions we must ask ourselves are how can some councils be getting this so wrong, and how much longer can we permit the system to fail so many of our young people.
It only takes one inspired individual to change our lives radically. Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, James Watt – all three of these figures singlehandedly delivered innovations which revolutionised the way we live, work and interact with each other, and of course added billions to the value of our economy and created tens of thousands of jobs. The next big idea could come from anyone, anywhere, and education should be delivered with this principal in mind.
The fundamental problems with our education system at present are how highly homogeneity is valued, the fact that both parents and pupils have little to no say over which school is best for them, and which school pupils do in fact attend is determined by something as arbitrary as where they are lucky (or unlucky) enough to live.
In schools with low S5/S6 stay-on rates, the number of Highers, and especially Advanced Highers, on offer is strictly limited. This reduces the pupils' ability to choose subjects which suit their natural abilities and future aspirations when compared with pupils at other schools who can offer a broader spectrum of courses as they have that critical mass required to lay on more specialist subjects.
I would propose in urban areas where there is a higher number of schools and indeed colleges within suitable travelling distance there could be a focus on specialisation. So one local school could focus on science and technology, another on business/economics, and a third on say social sciences. Thus the critical mass required to offer advanced higher classes could be attained by sending pupils with aspirations in the same direction to the same school.
At primary level, we focus far too much on homogeneity. I would argue if a pupil has not grasped a sufficient grounding in the prerequisite skills for secondary education by year 5, they should be withdrawn from mainstream education for a year and given an intensive grounding in the '3Rs' - on a residential basis if needs be – then reintroduced into mainstream education for year 7 for the transition to secondary school in a smooth, inclusive manner.
The liberal elite may call that exclusion; I would argue being an illiterate adult in 21st century Scotland is the biggest exclusion of all – just look at illiteracy levels amongst Scotland's prison population. We must be prepared to implement all measures necessary to prevent illiteracy.
If it is not eliminated by Primary 7, then it should not be any wonder that small-scale albeit high-volume disruption is prevalent at secondary level which is a huge factor in explaining the Scottish Conservative Party's findings.
Next on the agenda is that performance related pay should be an option for the remuneration of teaching staff. Better performing teachers, relative to the baseline they are starting off with, should be able to receive higher levels of remuneration. Of course, once we start to break down collective bargaining rules and individuals start to get paid by reflection of how effective they are at their jobs, the less relevant the teaching Unions would be. Their primary motive is self-preservation, and not to fight for hardworking parents and their children.
We all know what the Labour Party's definition of performance-based pay is: if Miliband performs, the Unions pay up. He has nothing positive to say about the teaching revolution taking place across England with the free school model.
The SNP has nothing to offer on education other than the mantra of free (full-time) university education, which should never be sacred to anyone who is serious about ensuring a broader spectrum of people actually make it through University, a number of whom can only attend University on a part-time basis and do not actually benefit from their free tuition fees policy.
More students are finding basic subsistence whilst at University challenging, they end up working several part-time jobs to make ends meet, which places stress on their coursework and goes some way to explain their higher drop-out rate. I'd argue a proper bursary system for the disadvantaged financed by those wealthy enough to pay for their university education would be a 'redistribution of opportunity', yet does not lie on the manifesto of a single political party of the Left in Scotland.
The concept of education vouchers works in Sweden. A further demonstration that this should not be a traditional 'left versus right' political battle – it is simply an argument over what is right for the next generation of young Scots.
Bringing this back to personal experience and even why I wish to be a candidate – people used to ask me how someone from the East End of Glasgow could join the Conservative Party.
All I would offer in return is having experienced what life is like at schools in the most deprived areas of Glasgow, having seen others being failed, and having witnessed others deliberately play down their own abilities and suppressing their own life chances – all without any intervention from teaching professionals nor the system – is to realise how could you not be a Conservative?
This latest educational research is just another in the long line of evidence that our education system, which was once the envy of the world, has been neglected for far too long, and if we are to ever achieve better social mobility in our country it is high time we started discussing the structure of our education system rather than simply how much money we spend on it.
We owe it our children, grandchildren, younger brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews – every single Scot has a stake in this argument. Unlike many matters of constitutional minutiae, which are de rigueur at the moment. So let's get to it. If we don't, who else will?
Andrew Morrison is an approved Scottish Conservative Candidate, freelance Chartered Accountant, and tweets under the pseudonym @TenementTory.