Education was always destined to be at the heart of the Scottish Parliament’s activities.
Widely believed to be one of the three pillars of Scotland’s national identity in the Union, it had, by 1999, outlasted the dwindling importance of the church and was now directly affecting far more people than the law. With three quarters of young people persevering to the end of at least five years of secondary schooling, and with one half entering higher education, the character of education could not fail to be central to debates.
It was understandable, moreover, that optimism about a parliament’s impact on education was one reason for the strong support for devolution in the 1997 referendum. Nor was it surprising that the most contentious policy debate in the first parliamentary election in 1999 was the matter of fees in higher education.
Yet, despite these expectations, the parliament’s policy making for education has been confused and almost perversely not based on evidence, as two pre-eminent examples can show – fees, and the school curriculum.
Fees were replaced in 2000 by a form of graduate tax. That was distinctive, although it was soon copied in London. When the SNP came to power, the Scottish fees were abolished altogether, and London has not followed.
This made for striking headlines, on the whole supported by every political party, claiming falsely that free education is a Scottish tradition. But it did nothing to boost participation or widen access. What really mattered were student living costs, in support of which Scottish bursaries and loans were less generous than those in England.
Participation continued to rise, but at no faster a rate than in England; and the cap on student numbers that was a consequence of the no-fees policy actually reduced the opportunities for Scottish students. The most rapid growth in fact had nothing to do with the parliament, because it was in the decade before 1999. In truth, education is expanding almost everywhere, regardless of regimes or constitutions.
The confusion is the triumph of rhetoric over reality. The same might also be said of the fundamental reform to the school curriculum after 2010. Curriculum for Excellence was presented as modernised child-centred education, eschewing academic aridity. This, too, was a contrast with England, where the Blair government had forced schools’ attention to basic literacy and numeracy. Like the fees policy, Curriculum for Excellence commanded support across the political spectrum.
Rhetoric which presented the new curriculum as empowering to teachers masked a burgeoning of central directives – masses of guidance that was couched in the impenetrable jargon favoured by the culturally insensitive bureaucrats who run education. Through this fog, it then gradually could be seen that the essence of the new curriculum was a resolute rejection of knowledge, replacing it with ‘skills’.
The most recent aspect of the resulting dismay has been the discovery that restricting the number of subjects of study which pupils could take in the middle years of secondary school was a deliberate aim. It may be that Scotland’s stagnant position in comparative international analysis of students’ achievement is in part due to this policy. We can’t be sure because nearly all sources of reliable evidence have been abolished by the present Scottish government and its predecessor coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Perhaps all this will turn out well in the end, when teachers yet again have to mitigate the excesses of politicians and bureaucrats. But, oddly for a parliament conceived in a spirit of national rediscovery, none of the curricular reforms pays any attention to the dominant Scottish tradition since the Reformation. That tradition was deliberately academic, believed to be the only sure way to develop skills. The intellect was the only sound basis for civic virtue. Providing knowledge to everyone was the only way to overcome social divisions. Extending these principles became the guiding philosophy of the slowly democratising education system of the twentieth century. What’s more, running through it all, there was an internationally pioneering commitment to assemble rigorous evidence by which to evaluate the effects of policies. Yet every element of this tradition is now ignored in public debate.
Education policy as made by the Scottish parliament has certainly been distinctive. But it has not been obviously successful, and it is not, in any historical sense, particularly Scottish.
First published by the Centre on Constitutional Reform in its 20 Years of Devolution series