With annual perversity the schools are returning just as Scotland’s main festivals season gets underway.
It is also time for the education minister, John Swinney, to take centre stage. He is second only to Nicola Sturgeon in the SNP hierarchy and was willing to leave the key office of finance secretary to sort out the problems in the schools and colleges: only a handful of these can be laid at the door of his feckless predecessor Angela Constance.
Swinney will spend the coming months trying to reassure teachers on the edge of revolt. New exams – Nationals 4 and 5 – are adding to the burdens of pupil assessment at a time when teacher numbers have been pared back. The local authorities have had their education budgets cut and SNP council leaders are among the critics. In the background there is unease that Scottish educational performance is slipping back, not just compared to that of other advanced countries but alongside other parts of the UK.
Swinney is a skilful politician who will brush aside the criticism that he was finance secretary throughout the SNP’s years in government and so has to shoulder blame for the starving of education resources. The culprit as usual will be the Westminster government. But the age-old excuses may no longer sound so convincing to SNP voters for two reasons.
First, all governments are judged by how people feel that the key services like education and health are doing, and there is no doubt that public disquiet is on the rise. Second, the Scottish government is about to take on new tax and spending powers from Westminster – too few of course for SNP propagandists but a significant challenge to Scottish ministers. To further their ambitions as social democrats, will they tax and spend, or would that upset the middle classes on whose votes they depend? It is the dilemma long familiar to all governments of the left.
If Swinney wants to be radical and not just emollient, he would have been better to stay as finance secretary. With Sturgeon’s backing he could tackle the underfunding of both education and health. As a departmental minister he has to fight his corner against other competing priorities.
It is not enough to put out bush fires and keep the teachers quiet. Scottish education suffers for the reason it long has. And the reason is in plain view. The gap between well performing schools and those with histories of low achievement is far too wide. Our national performance level is dragged down by this long tail. And the correlation between poverty and poor performance is exact.
One does not need to drag out statistics from areas of historic deprivation in west central Scotland. Edinburgh, the economically successful capital, tells the story. A report by Edinburgh City Council reveals that only six pupils from the poorest families gained three top-level passes at Higher level compared with 290 from the wealthiest families. More than a fifth of children in the city fell under the internationally agreed definition of poverty. Across the country as a whole the long-running Growing Up in Scotland study found that over a seven year period 55 per cent of children will have experienced at least one year of poverty.
Deprivation and poor school performance go together. Teachers are not to blame for the low scores by pupils from families struggling with low incomes and low expectations. The sad fact is that the link between poverty and minimal school qualifications goes back generations. The connection is so obvious that it goes unrecognised in the superficial arguments about, for example, mixed-ability classes as opposed to selection by ability. Future historians will regard the blindness as similar to our amazement that it took so long for Victorians to make the connection between child mortality and insanitary slum housing.
Wait a minute, does the Scottish government not have a plan? We are indeed promised a Child Poverty Bill. It will include statutory targets to ensure that by 2030 fewer than 5 per cent of children live in low-income and material poverty. The responsibility for turning the bill into law belongs to Angela Constance, who is now equalities secretary. Unless she can belie her previous record by instilling enthusiasm and commitment from local councils and civic bodies, the risk is of, at best, unfulfilled good intentions and, at worst, tokenism. There would have been more hope if the First Minister had signalled her commitment by giving the job to John Swinney.