If you want to know what is wrong with Scottish education, you need look no further than the absolute shit-show we’ve endured for the last two weeks or so.
Enter Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale, a former First Minister and education secretary, and current paid education adviser for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
(Note: discussion of that latter point led to him attacking a journalist on Twitter and accusing people of believing in a “conspiracy theory”, despite it being publicly available on his register of interests).
Writing for Reform Scotland, a well-connected and opaquely-funded right-wing think tank and lobbying group, he railed against the government’s plans for schools in an essay that had less meaning, and makes less sense, the more you read it, repeating the same buzz phrases over and over – a variant of ‘protect health and save jobs’ appears on four separate occasions – while refusing to engage with any serious practicalities. This was no educational action plan, but rather a political essay written for political purposes, and it quickly became a black hole so dense that it crushed all critical thought in its vicinity.
The central thread of the essay was an entirely disingenuous comparison between partially opened schools and the NHS. McConnell argued that we had thrown all of society’s resources at the health sector, but that the government was ‘failing the lockdown generation’ by refusing to do the same for education. This despite the fact that the NHS, even after an unprecedented national effort which included having the army build an entire hospital ward in just a few days, had in fact been operating an enormously restricted service, with clinics cancelled, operations postponed, and people unable to even visit their dying loved ones to say goodbye.
It was a cynical tactic and an act of blatant political opportunism that should have been condemned, but of course it wasn’t. Not in Scotland.
Two days later, John Swinney appeared on (BBC) Politics Scotland on Sunday and attempted to explain plans for ‘blended learning’, where pupils would spend some of their time learning at school and the rest working at home. With schooling unlikely to return to normal, he said, it was possible that these plans could be needed for “some considerable time to come”, although he also pledged that they would not be continued “for a minute longer than is necessary.”
In short, we would be planning for the worst while hoping for the best which is, very obviously, the correct approach in the circumstances. This was also the only way to even attempt to give schools and families some certainty and was without doubt the right thing to do – but the presentation wasn’t quite right, no effective correction or clarification was forthcoming, and as a result it didn’t take long for some to try to exploit the resulting anxiety.
Over the following days we were subjected to the usual wave of ignorance and point-scoring from the usual politicians, lobbyists and columnists, all desperate to get in on the action no matter how little they understood. Opportunities to boost profiles and fill column inches can’t be missed. That would be unprofessional.
Possession of a keyboard was confused for expertise, the plural of anecdote mistaken for evidence, and the ‘debate’ descended into a rabble with appalling, yet predictable, rapidity. You’d have to be extraordinarily naïve to believe that it was driven by concern for the wellbeing of young people.
None of this was ever going to do anything to help anxious parents – although in fairness that was never the point – and soon two contradictory campaigns involving small numbers of people were presented as evidence that The Parents of Scotland were outraged by the government’s plans. Parental anxiety was, and is, entirely understandable, and the government did not do enough to address it – but those fears were also actively exploited by others.
In addition, we should recognise that much of the discussion was centred not around the quality of children’s educational experiences, but rather on the need for free childcare so that parents could be sent back to work. That’s not new, or news, but it still says a lot about us.
U-turn if you want to…
In the end the pressure proved too much for the SNP and forced John Swinney into a parliamentary statement about the government’s plans for schools. He admitted that more progress had been made in controlling the virus than had been expected, a revelation which under any other circumstances would surely have been cause for celebration not opprobrium. If we continue along the same trajectory, and if the virus has been supressed, and if it is safe, then, we were told, schools could reopen fully, without social distancing, in August.
Swinney was immediately accused of a U-turn, but how about just this once we stop for a second and think this through?
First, some perspective. There are around two and a half thousand schools in Scotland, ranging from tiny island primaries to massive urban secondaries, a handful of pupils to a four-figure school roll, airy new builds to tight Victorian corridors, stone’s-throw catchments to commutes by ferry. They serve nearly 700,000 pupils and are the workplace of more than 50,000 teachers, approximately 15% of whom are aged over 55.
Over the last couple of months schools have worked tirelessly to develop plans for a worst case scenario in August, maximising the time students could spend in schools under social distancing rules whilst simultaneously developing the most effective remote and home learning options available to them, all while continuing to support their existing pupils and their families.
If you doubt the herculean nature of this task or think that it could have been achieved under a presumption of ‘normal’ schooling in August, it’s because you don’t understand what was involved.
But with that work having been done, and with public health measures more effective than predicted, the hope is now (as it surely always was) that it will not be needed. We’ve prepared for the worst, so now we are able to hope – and plan – for the best.
Unfortunately, John Swinney hadn’t informed schools, councils or even, it seems, his own Education Recovery Group about the plans – and let’s not forget that they were also announced hours from the beginning of some schools’ summer holidays. That failure, combined with the inevitable political game-playing that followed, only served to create more anxiety than before. Prior to Swinney’s speech Scotland’s parents, pupils and teachers at least had a measure of certainty about what the return to school would look like – now even that is gone. It wasn’t perfect but, in these circumstances, as is so often the case, perfect has proven to be the enemy of good.
Learning in limbo
Now many teachers feel that they have been left in limbo and, although their work certainly has not been wasted, they are perfectly entitled to feel disrespected. The situation isn’t much better for parents, who still don’t actually know what will happen on the 11th of August. We traded an admittedly imperfect security for complete uncertainty and did so at the worst possible time.
To compound the problem, the same politicians who had demanded that uncertainty then shamelessly denounced the education secretary for creating it. Obviously.
The whole thing has been a brutal indictment of the relationship between education, politics and the media in this country, as is the refusal to appreciate the poisonous impact that this eternal circus has on the system itself.
But while the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a hitherto unimaginable amount of fuel on the fire, we must also remember what sparked the flames. It wasn’t a shaky TV appearance in June, or the closure of schools in March, or even the emergence of the coronavirus in December last year; the truth is that this all started almost five years ago in Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.
There, on the 18th of August 2015, Nicola Sturgeon explicitly staked her political reputation on her new plans to improve Scottish schooling, including the headline policy of imposing national standardised testing in an attempt to arrest sliding literacy and numeracy scores.
“Let me be clear,” she insisted, “I want to be judged on this.”
At a stroke, Scotland’s First Minister bonded educational improvement to electoral cycles for her own party’s gain, and in doing so ensured that the nation’s schools – and, more importantly, the children in them – would become more politicised than ever before. We’ve been dealing with the fallout of this decision ever since.
Post-indyref Scotland is a land of political trench warfare where, for the last five years, pupils and teachers have been some of those sent over the top.
So, the question I’m supposed to answer now is: where should we go from here?
Well we should start by laying the groundwork for a post-pandemic review of Scottish schooling. It must be more than just some technocratic document analysis by faceless OECD officials, or a few focus groups and school visits that are little more than a demonstration of the observer effect in action.
No, what we really need is the guts to honestly examine our educational achievements, failures, plans and priorities.
Such a review needs to look beyond tired assumptions and the interminable ‘aye been’ mentality that holds us back, instead asking hard questions about the central assumptions of our school system. Issues like the school starting age, transition stages, outdoor education, educational technology, gender gaps, geographical gaps, anti-racism and decolonisation of the curriculum, qualifications and end of school examination, teacher pay arrangements and class contact time, third sector integration, anti-poverty action, LGBT inclusion and more.
It should also put the key players in the system, namely the SQA and Education Scotland, under the microscope. Both organisations are the subject of constant criticism from teachers, and both have performed poorly over the last few months. Are they simply led by the wrong people, or are the structures and cultures just not fit for purpose?
And, of course, there are still enormous problems with Curriculum for Excellence. Some are issues of implementation but there are also serious failures of design which, for political reasons more than anything, have been ignored. It is vital that we separate, interrogate and resolve these distinct but interconnected issues.
So that’s where we should go, but will it happen?
Of course not. The powers that be will insist that such a review is simply not needed, and that even if it were it is simply too difficult at present. Now is not the time.
The truth is much simpler: we’re too afraid.
At the beginning of May I wrote about my fears that we were going to squander a unique opportunity to change things for the better. I wanted to be optimistic. I really, really tried. But I’ve lived in this country my entire life. I’ve spent a decade teaching here. Over the last five years I’ve investigated the way the system works for young people and the way in which politicians, lobbyists, special interest groups and even the royal family interact with it. Those experiences have left little room for optimism.
There are exceptions to the rule, as there always are, but outliers don’t change the landscape – they only serve to magnify its worst features.
Scotland likes to see itself as a bold, brave, progressive, dynamic 21st Century nation, but the truth is more insular, conservative, deferential and, in the end, suffocating – not just for individuals, but for ideas and innovation too. Unless that changes, nothing else will.
So, where do we go from here?
Honestly? Probably nowhere.
Featured image via enquire.org.uk
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