James McEnaney: Time is ticking for Sturgeon and Swinney on education

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney says the Scottish Government is failing to get a grip on education and if Sturgeon wants to be judged on her record, time is running out

IT wasn't supposed to be this way.

When John Swinney became education secretary, Scotland's commentators and news-makers lined up to tell us that his appointment was a clear statement of intent, a sign that education really would be this government's top priority: having watched Angela Constance flounder, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had turned to someone who, if not quite a messianic saviour, was at least an ultra-competent political heavyweight, one who would surely succeed where his predecessors had failed.

“His appointment to this crucial role demonstrates how important education is to my government," said Sturgeon, her hubristic demand to be judged on her record still hanging heavy overhead.

Mr Swinney made all the right noises, too. He talked about being “thrilled” at his appointment, which he regarded as a “tremendous honour”, and promised the teaching profession: “I am listening. I just want to get on with sorting it. And I will do my best.”

Slowly but surely the panic took hold as it became clear that a decade of beating spreadsheets into submission might not necessarily offer the best preparation for the job of education secretary.

All, it seemed, was right with the world - if you believed the headlines and the soundbites, we were witnessing a triumphant first step towards a brighter future for Scottish education.

But then reality kicked in. The fire-fighting began. Slowly but surely the panic took hold as it became clear that a decade of beating spreadsheets into submission might not necessarily offer the best preparation for the job of education secretary.

Swinney was subjected to angry heckling from teachers during his very first appearance at the EIS conference and was forced to defend the decision to pursue standardised testing despite his government's written advice on the matter amounting to just four emails. Successive sets of data on literacy and numeracy levels in Scottish schools also made for grim reading, his supposedly ‘definitive’ workload guidance was widely mocked within the teaching profession and secret meetings with rightwing lobbyists were uncovered.

Last week, concerns were raised that some the government’s much-heralded International Council of Education Advisers are far too close to the ministers they are supposed to be challenging (one even referred to Nicola Sturgeon as “the awesome first minister of Scotland”) while the week before TESS reported that (badly rushed) changes to National 5 qualifications would not be completed until well into the teaching year, with some documents (such as example papers) potentially not available to teachers or students until the end of September. On top of that, FE lecturers are threatening to strike again after a pay deal failed to materialise.

Swinney is keen to paint the delay as a sensible consequence of very high levels of engagement but the fact is reaction to these plans has been largely negative and, in some cases, devastating.

And now comes more bad news, this time regarding the school governance review on which John Swinney’s reputation may, and should, come to hang.

The results of the review will, at least in theory, inform SNP plans to remove education powers from councils, establish a new layer of control (and bureaucracy) in ‘educational regions’ and even potentially permit the establishment of free schools in Scotland (though with a title, such as ‘autonomous schools’, that is less politically-loaded). We now know that the resulting Education Bill, which was to be published in early 2017, will not appear until after the local elections (and potentially much later).

Swinney is keen to paint the delay as a sensible consequence of very high levels of engagement (around 1,100 responses were received in total) but the fact is reaction to these plans has been largely negative and, in some cases, devastating. A leading parents group, for example, attacked in very strong terms the impenetrability of the consultation documents; The Royal Society of Edinburgh highlighted its concerns that the government “has not made a case” for its proposed reforms, had in some cases adopted “a pre-determined stance without providing the supporting evidence-base” and was, ultimately, risking “that we substitute a new set of constraints and challenges for existing ones in a way that does not address the attainment imperatives”.

What is especially striking, however, is that the sort of concerns raised again and again in relation to this review were entirely predictable and, to be brutally honest, could – should - have been anticipated by a half-competent government. Instead, Sturgeon and Swinney have ensured that when you go to the polls in May you won’t really know what their candidates stand for when it comes to education, arguably the single biggest matter for councils.

This is either intentional – which would be disgraceful but not entirely surprising – or it is a sign of how badly the government is struggling when it comes to education policy.

I am genuinely concerned about the education my three-year-old-son will receive in Scotland over the next 15 years.

It’s tempting to describe all of this as "shocking" but that would be a lie. What is truly shocking is that these sorts of failings are no longer surprising - they are the routine, the symptoms of desperate, reactive, short-term thinking.

This is what happens when a government is sucked into a downward spiral of arrogance, defensive spin and entirely avoidable mistakes - one error leads to another, and another, and before you know it the unending quest for quick wins and positive headlines, made all the more pressing by the ever-increasing litany of failures, takes us down a road where Scotland’s teachers, parents and – most of all – young people are, once again, being badly let down.

Somehow we have reached the stage where I am genuinely concerned about the education my three-year-old son will receive in Scotland over the next 15 years. As a teacher, that is not something I would ever say lighty – but it is the truth.

Nicola Sturgeon said that she wants to be judged on her government's record in education, and John Swinney will find himself under the same pressure. So far, the report card is not looking good and, unless they are willing to admit that they have got things badly wrong so far, a passing grade looks increasingly unlikely.

Picture courtesy of Scottish Government

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Wed, 03/01/2017 - 23:39

You are doing a cracking job there James.

With any luck, you might erode the Scottish Government's support just enough to swing the indyref that we all think is imminent in the favour of the Union.

That is what you are doing, isn't it?

I mean, if it wasn't for Common Space "holding the SNP to account", where would the people of Scotland look to for a media that supports the Tories and Labour...

florian albert

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 21:22

The key fact is that John Swinney was appointed to his post as a result of the poor performance of Scottish pupils in the PISA assessments and the problems associated with the Curriculum for Excellence.
It is unthinkable that George Osborne would have been moved from Chancellor of the Exchequer to Education Secretary at Westminister. At Holyrood, the lack of talent made John Swinney's move unavoidable.

The attainment gap will not be closed easily Educational apartheid mirrors social apartheid.
The SNP - foolishly - continued with CfE even when its limitations were crystal clear.
The strong likelihood is that attainment gap will remain.
Middle class people may worry about what will happen to their children in the future.
The children of people living in deprived areas are suffering from poor education now.

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