Education, education, education. That was Tony Blair’s response when asked about Labour priorities before the landslide victory in 1997. It was the right response then and remains so today.
After the recent Scottish budget, with significant cuts to higher and tertiary education and education issues being keenly debated, it is time to reaffirm our commitment to education and assert its vital importance to Scotland’s future. We can no longer argue that our education, and its democratic traditions, is one of the best in the world, if indeed that was ever the case.
What we need now is a more informed and urgent debate about Scottish education and its role in a modern and rapidly changing economic, social and political landscape.
I had the privilege of meeting Jean-Francois Richard, President of the World Bank-Europe in 2000. He is the author of High Noon – 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them. This book captured the enduring importance of education by arguing its benefits: the key to building a sense of global citizenship; central to the construction of democratic societies; one of the most powerful instruments for tackling poverty and inequality; vital for dealing with the new world economy and the knowledge society; making nations and communities more tolerant and cohesive; and the key to personal development and fulfilment.
But the greatest reward from education is the idea of lifelong learning for everyone, from early years into adulthood. Richard underlines the self-evident truth that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste”. Today, Scotland needs to invest more in all aspects of education and learning, not less. Education is not just another public service; it is the most important ingredient in the mix of essentials that will determine the future of Scotland and individual achievement.
There are areas of education such as nursery and primary where real improvements have been made and arguably, we compare favourably with other countries. Yet in other areas, like comprehensive schooling, universities and colleges, a more rigorous debate is long overdue.
The present Scottish Government is right to be revisiting McCrone, introducing the Curriculum for Excellence and producing a Green Paper on higher education but we need to go much further. In recent years, we have focused on the role of teachers in education and students in terms of fees and maintenance, however, we have failed to address the institutional issues and constraints they impose on achieving real and substantial change.
Scotland is not good at dealing with institutions. Mindsets and cultures are difficult to change and present formidable obstacles to reform. Scotland is too often the victim of its history and legacy and we seem unable or unwilling to pursue new and radical ideas that will allow us to break free from the past.
Our university, college and secondary school sectors face the biggest challenges. New investment will only make a difference if the institutions are reformed and if we genuinely learn from other countries how to break down, successfully, the barriers of vested interest and outdated thinking. We are fortunate in having talented children and young people and teachers and lecturers who are skilled and motivated, however, institutional change requires leadership that is willing to embrace new ideas and some greater urgency and honesty being shown about the challenges we face. Difficult questions need to be asked.
Why do we talk about student fees but rarely about university and college income? Why do we concentrate on teachers, when the institutions need to be reformed? Why do we not ask our universities and colleges to pursue with the same vigour the reforms being pursued by local government on shared services and rationalisation? Why do we still look to geography for our college institutions, when we live in an electronic and information age where physical location has lost some of its relevance? Why do we look to government when school authorities, universities and colleges should be leading the way on reform?
With some notable exceptions, we need to stop pretending that Scotland is a world-class performer and accept our relative position is declining as other countries move ahead. The case for more investment has to be made on the back of education being radical and reforming and more open and transparent in its hopes and aspirations. Self-belief has to be greater than it is and despite austerity, Scottish education has to take more responsibility for its own future. The great ideals that drive education should be the inspiration for a greater collective effort on the part of all of us. There are no grounds for complacency In The Culture of Contentment, JK Galbraith asserts that as affluence advances the political class, other organisations and collective bodies weaken. Their collective resolve to tackle difficult issues and intractable problems, despite being part of the political rhetoric, has been diminished. Learning and education are the keys to promoting social mobility, tackling the deep inequality that exists in Scotland and building a fulfilling social and economic future for millions of Scots. The achievement gap has to be closed. The dilemma is real and the challenge is obvious.