Election battlelines are drawn


North of the border, there seems to be consensus between the two main parties on education policy. The devil, says Alex Wood, will be in the detail.

It is patently clear that an election is looming. The unusual aspect in Scotland however, is that education is centre stage.

North of the Tweed, the election is a two-horse race, between Labour and the SNP, each battling to define itself with reference to social justice and to differentiate itself from the other despite (except on matters constitutional) little policy to separate them.

Jim Murphy, Labour’s new Scottish leader, is offering a £25 million plan to raise the attainment of Scotland’s poorest children. 

He is proposing a new literacy programme for the early years in Scotland’s poorest 20 secondaries and their associate primaries. Additional specialist teachers would be recruited. Parents would be targeted as well as young people. A new focus would also be on looked-after children.

Simultaneously, SNP first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced that while the Scottish government intends avoiding Michael Gove’s free schools and academies model, attention will focus on the successes of the London Challenge in raising attainment levels by encouraging inter-school cooperation and focusing on both literacy and the quality of teachers and teaching. 

The scheme will be backed up by a new Attainment Scotland Fund with £100 million of investment over four years. It will prioritise literacy and numeracy in the first three years of primary education in schools in Scotland’s most deprived communities.

At one level, the immediate media response to the government initiative has been, first, to welcome the fact that a nationalist government is willing to emulate practice in England, and, second, to note that hardly a paper’s breadth separates the positions of the two parties.

As ever the devil will be in the detail. If the issue is the quality of teaching, then the priority is not merely more resources and more teachers, but better teachers operating in a professional culture where poor teaching is unacceptable.

If however, the emulation of London Challenge brings with it the Teach First model of importing academically talented but unqualified teachers, consensus will fly out the window.

The nature of the identified inequality in educational outcomes is also both noteworthy and debatable. Ms Sturgeon’s announcement of the government plans stated: “In the most deprived 10 per cent of Scotland’s areas, fewer than one pupil in three leaves school with at least one Higher. In the most affluent areas, it’s four out of every five. That is not acceptable.” 

Of course it is true that such disparities are unacceptable. It says something however about educational debate that the criteria for judging school success is always, and often solely, the quality of the exam performance of the top academic cohort.

Nor has either Mr Murphy or Ms Sturgeon addressed the single factor which has most powerfully contributed to the continuing, apparent under-performance of the schools serving our poorest communities. 

It is parental choice which has steadily drained a sufficient number of the highest attaining children from such schools and made the creation of a culture geared to success harder than ever.

Politicians need reminding that poverty and inequality are rooted deeply in our contemporary economic system and cannot be eradicated merely by educational reforms. 

Teachers also however have to refocus and enthusiastically accept a key role in the process of tackling poverty and inequality. Perhaps the newly expressed consensus on educational policy will mark a start in finding practical ways to implement that ideal.

  • 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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