Jim Swift lives in Newton Mearns, is one of three Conservative Councillors elected for the Newton Mearns South & Eaglesham ward, and is a professional health economist. Education is one of many interests pursued by Cllr Swift, and we present the second instalment of his guest article on the Scottish Government’s proposals to centralise control over our schools.
It is very strange that the Scottish Government demand ever more powers from London, yet do not devolve any, but rather demand ever more powers from our communities too. They are control freaks and their desire to micro-manage every aspect of our lives, especially when they will do it much worse should be resisted. The “named person” scheme is but one example of control seeping into aspects of our lives where Government has no business being involved.
I remember a discussion a decade ago with the then Director of Education in East Renfrewshire, a man considered by many to be pre-eminent in his field and the head of the education authority with the best exam results in Scotland and asking him if there had been any slippage in standards in teaching or education. He defended the profession and his life’s work with the passion and vigour I would have expected. However, when asked if Highers had got easier in his time in education. He immediately responded with “in 1992”.
I confess I had thought it mythical, the inexorable slide in exam difficulty described by many. Not so, the slide has been real and over generations. Does anyone now know anything about grammar before they learn another language? Declining nouns and conjugating verbs, never mind past participles, gerunds and split infinitives, anyone, anyone? Thought not, but this was in the syllabus for primary school but two generations ago.
When I sat my higher Latin in 1982, it was 55% seen, which meant in theory it could be passed without knowing any Latin and there was no English into Latin translation, nor interpretation exercise; all of which my father recalled in his day. Was the Latin Higher noticeably easier in one generation? You bet it was and by a very substantial margin.
If we cannot conjugate verbs or translate English into Latin, does this matter? Does exam difficulty correlate with educational attainment? Does dumbing down education have any harmful effects?
Does that translate into how Scotland will fare in a globally competitive world?
PISA showed that Scotland has declined versus other first world countries and some other lower players.
Scotland that always seems to want to judge itself by its nearest neighbour and had always fared better has now been surpassed by England. Where we have always prided ourselves on the universality of access to higher education, which despite differing policy choices; e.g. offering free access to tertiary education now also falls behind England in the proportion of less affluent young people going to university. Yet this was perhaps the key driver behind the policy choice.
Brighter pupils in Scotland are one year behind where they were only a decade ago in science. Scotland is doing less well in education and that decline has been one of long run poor choices. Why over the last decade have things managed to get markedly worse here in Scotland?
Historically Scotland spends more on education per capita than England and still does. We spend more but it would seem that for the first time ever we are getting less. Our devolved government has introduced “Curriculum for Excellence” and not to universal acclaim nor for that matter universal condemnation. There appear to be good and bad bits, but if introducing changes to a system that is failing, why are their bad bits? If the Government in Holyrood believed it would turn things around, why did they cancel the schools numeracy and literacy tests?
Devolution has meant divergence in choices and thereby divergence in outcomes. If we are unwilling to change policies that aren’t working or learn from other areas with policies that are, then we aren’t being very bright.
Subjectively, I would suggest it might be a government wedded to ideas carved into stone that clearly aren’t working to our advantage that is a very significant part of our problem.
But to the point at hand does this matter?
It matters directly for our education industry, as the policy choice of free education means that many places have to be sold to foreign students to subsidise our own students and those from other EU countries that are also “free”. Our universities fare less well in UK league tables, Stirling and Dundee, a recent rise from Glasgow and the notably excepted Edinburgh & St Andrews our only first class universities have maintained a good reputation. If you are paying through the nose, who wants to go to a so-so university. There is a danger that international students choose to go elsewhere and that would damage the financial stability of our universities even further.
It matters socially because the traditional route of the least affluent who missed out on the full fruits of education the first time round into education, the colleges have been gutted to pay for free university education. The traditional route out of poverty has been education and in an ever more knowledge based economy, it is even more relevant. The loss of 142,000 places has implications and not least in social mobility and that the ladder out of poverty has been lifted out of reach for many.
It matters if we have a labour market that ill matches the demand for STEM subjects and we do not use incentives to encourage the universities to expand their syllabuses and students to want to study them.
It matters because the money spent on education that is driving perverse outcomes is money that can’t be spent on other things or even on the bits we all agree are useful. It matters because if the SNP want the fairer society that they maintain they do and to reduce inequalities that they insist matter, policies that are clearly managing to deliver the opposite outcomes should no longer be promoted, but they are.
We all make mistakes, electorates tend to forgive them if they are admitted early, are admitted with humility and most importantly reversed. Electorates tend to be less forgiving when mistakes are not just ignored, but carved into stone, I am sure we all recall Salmond’s giant Elgin sandstone lump inscribed thus “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.” Humility avoided!