Education a key battleground in debate on Scottish independence

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Already a devolved power, education perhaps should not be an issue in the independence debate – but it is. With three weeks to go before the vote, Alex Wood offers his commentary.

The Scottish and English education systems have always been separate. Knox’s aim of a school in every parish was never comprehensively achieved but the concept of education accessible to all children irrespective of family wealth has long been part of the Scottish educational tradition.

Scottish universities were far more accessible than their English equivalents and, indeed, for centuries Scotland had four while England had only two. They also offered a far more broadly based and less specialised curriculum, a characteristic also of Scottish schools.

When comprehensive schools were introduced every Scottish council implemented the change and, unlike in England, no selective schools remained in the local authority system. 

When opting-out was introduced in Scotland, parents in only two schools, St Mary’s Episcopal School in Dunblane and Dornoch Academy, utilised the opportunity. Both have now returned to the local authority system. Private schools have always educated a smaller proportion of the school population than in England.

These differences have become more acute over recent years with the introduction of free schools and academies south of the border (and with these, the abandonment of national pay scales) and with the increasingly dominant role of Ofsted in English education.

Devolution largely passed responsibility for education at all levels to the Scottish Parliament. In that sense, education ought not to be an issue in the referendum – but it is.

First, the devolved Parliament is financed by block grant. That grant level is determined by the Barnett formula which allocates funds to Scotland as a fixed proportion of UK public spending. If therefore UK public spending increases, the Scottish block grant increases. If it falls, as it has of late, the Scottish block grant falls.

The Scottish government can of course spend as much as it wishes on what it wishes, but within a block grant system, one increase (such as the payment of university fees) must be met by another decrease (as in spending on the further education college sector). 

Ironically, the first educational salvoes to be fired were from the universities, for although higher education is devolved, university research funding is not. Scottish universities have historically gained disproportionally from UK research funding. The fear that such research funding would diminish with independence was the first educational issue of the campaign.

The Scottish government however, has sought to illustrate that the Scottish Parliament can govern effectively and efficiently in all the devolved areas and, by extension, could govern well in the areas not presently devolved. Boasting the successes of Scottish education has therefore been an integral part of the campaign.

The problem is that Scottish education, Scottish schools in particular, has experienced rapid change, dislocation and even difficulties with the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, new exams and Education Scotland.

The Yes campaign has also majored on the potential of an independent Scotland being a less divided and unequal society, but while the proportion of university entrants from Scotland’s most deprived areas has risen marginally, several of the universities with the worst records for recruiting students from diverse backgrounds have slipped even further back.

There have however been successes. The Schools for the Future programme has started to tackle the problem of an outdated estate with 67 new schools set for completion by March 2018 – and that without further privatisation of the school estate. 

The proportion of school-leavers entering positive destinations (training, education or work) reached 90 per cent in March 2014, the highest level on record.

Perhaps the most intriguing educational issue however to be dropped into the referendum pool was Gordon Brown’s hints that perhaps Scotland’s separate system of educational qualifications might be abandoned in favour of a UK-wide approach. Mr Brown cited surveys of young Scots which showed that a majority of them “do not want to be part of an exclusively Scottish education system but want a UK system where the curriculum and exams are the same for everyone in the UK”.

Mr Brown went on: “Scottish young people’s support for the same educational curriculum and exams across the UK is stronger than any poll would report for any group of adults, showing that young people are not the newly enfranchised ‘nationalist generation’ of the independence movement’s dreams but a newly enfranchised and also newly empowered ‘networked generation’ – happy to be seen as Scottish first but suspicious of being seen as exclusively Scottish.”

To date, the Better Together campaign, keen to establish a sense that a No vote can be followed by more devolution rather than less, has not commented on the former premier’s suggestions, but what is clear is that the abandonment of Scotland’s distinct qualifications model would signal the end of Scotland’s distinct and broad curricular model.

Perhaps however for teachers, and indeed for anyone interested in education, there is, behind the devolution-vs-independence debate, a larger issue which was first articulated, pre-devolution, by Tam Dalyell, MP: does devolution, with its capacity for one part of unified state to become substantially different from another part, not inevitably lead to the break-up of that larger state?

In respect of education, as of other issues, the very impetus towards such a break-up might ironically come from England where Scottish choices such as “free” university education, or indeed “free” personal care for the elderly, are viewed with jealousy and an increasing sense of difference. 

Already politicians such as John Redwood have, understandably, in the event of a No vote, openly called for Scottish MPs to have no votes on English matters which are devolved in Scotland.

There are few Union Jacks or saltires lining Scottish streets, nor have the masses been marching for one option or the other. Crucial though the debate is, it has been muted and restrained. 

These next few weeks will have a major impact on the future of these islands we inhabit. Whatever the result, the debate on Scotland’s schools and its broader education system will start again in earnest after the vote on September 18.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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