Skip to main content

Education election

By 30 April 2012No Comments

The Scottish Parliament elections are on 5th May.  The first debate on education took place in the National Gallery in Edinburgh last week.  Mike Russell, SNP Cabinet Secretary for Education, and the education spokespersons for the other four parliamentary parties (Labour’s Des McNulty, the Lib-Dems’ Margaret Smith, the Greens’ Robin Harper and Liz Smith for the Conservatives) answered questions.  Despite remarkable consensus among the parties on most issues, the devil was in the detail.
The first question was about cuts: “How can schools and local authorities carry out cuts without significant reorganisation of falling standards?”  Labour’s Des McNulty wanted more spent on education and more autonomy for schools.  Margaret Smith summed up the view of four of the five parties by calling for creativity and imagination to make the best of difficult times.  She also suggested however that resources had been poorly used over the last few years when “lots of money” has been poured into education but that these resources “haven’t solved things”.  Tory spokesperson Elizabeth Smith echoed that.  There had been a doubling of expenditure in Scottish schools since devolution, there had nonetheless been “significant failures in attainment”.  Mike Russell seemed to bridge the Labour and Tory positions, stating that the “big debate is the relationship between attainment and autonomy”.   He also repeated the truism that change is always difficult but suggested that that it was hard to discuss change openly in the run-up to an election.  Several in the audience thought that that open discussion was the exact purpose of such a pre-election debate.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities recently proposed to alter teachers’ conditions of service.  Peter Wright of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association asked if these proposals would seriously damage Scottish education.   Liz Smith for the Tories suggested that the answer lay in part with the local authorities and that 32 councils running 32 different education services was the wrong mechanism in a small country.  Mike Russell defended the SNP Government’s resources input to Scottish schools.  The pressure for the cuts flowed from Scotland having no tax raising power and operating on the basis of a fixed Westminster block grant.  He left himself wide open to the counter-blast from Des McNulty that the Scottish Government’s Council Tax freeze was having precisely the same effect on the councils. Robin Harper of the Greens alone supported the industrial action now being considered by Scottish teachers’ unions.
There was little division among the speakers on the content of education.  A question strongly critical of Curriculum for Excellence, the Scottish Government’s flagship policy (one introduced by the previous Labour administration but maintained by the SNP) was rebuffed by the entire platform.  Liz Smith suggested that Curriculum for Excellence carried too much bureaucratic paper work but was supportive of the general approach as were the other speakers, Russell and Harper enthusiastically so.  From the floor however, Larry Flannigan of the Educational Institute for Scotland, the largest teachers’ union, stated that Curriculum for Excellence rested on the goodwill of teachers and that the present attacks on jobs and conditions was evaporating that goodwill.
A question on the reduction of compulsory assessments, particularly in the primary sector, saw Des McNulty reiterate Labour’s conversion to parental choice with a plea for more accurate objective testing to support parents’ judgements about the schools to which they send their children.  The Conservatives and Liberals also endorsed a greater emphasis on assessment.  Mike Russell struck a slightly more sceptical note, pointing out that the most successful European school system, in Finland, has the lowest levels of external assessment.
A question on continuing professional development for teachers, again started debate on the local government structure.  Robin Harper suggested moving to either fewer councils or joint boards, effectively amalgamating the education services of several local councils which might however continue to operate other services autonomously.
The last question centred on the proposed amalgamation of Her Majesty’s Inspectors in Scotland with the national curriculum organisation, Learning & Teaching Scotland.  The Tories and SNP endorsed the proposal.  The Liberals thought there was insufficient clarity and Labour could not see why it was being pushed through so quickly.
As a starter for the election campaign proper, the debate illustrated the lack of serious discussion or disagreement on the big issues in Scottish education.  Only the budgetary cuts generate passion although all four of the big parties are wary of being drawn into a serious discussion since they are all committed to their implementation.
The above article was first published in SecEd on 14 April 2011:;type_uid=18;section=Breaking%20news

Leave a Reply