As the parties gear up to fight tooth and nail in what promises to be a tense set of local Scottish elections, Holyrood examines the importance of education in securing a winning vote.
Ahead looms 3 May, like a thunderous sky waiting to open. The star attraction will be the SNP-Scottish Labour showdown in Glasgow. The tipping of this holy grail of council seats could sound the death knell for Labour in Scotland if its fingers are prised from the stronghold by the SNP campaign. And education, as ever, is a fat dangling carrot used in each party’s manifesto to woo voters ahead of the local elections.
Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Conservatives touted free schools as an “alternative” model of primary and secondary education in order to encourage “diversity” in the educational system.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats placed job creation and investment in education at the top of its list of pledges. In Inverness Willie Rennie put “giving children the best possible chance in life” alongside looking after the elderly and improving the environment.
Alex Salmond used the SNP’s spring conference in Glasgow to win supporters, vowing that Scotland will have the most generous childcare system in the UK. The Children’s Bill would include a legal guarantee of 600 hours of free nursery education per year for every child aged three and four from 2014.
“Yes!” screamed audience members at the SECC, punching the air victoriously. But moments laterthe SNP were accused by Scottish Labour of recycling an old pledge they had conspicuously failed to deliver on.
Nonetheless, damage was done to Scottish Labour’s ego through the unveiling of an intensely popular pledge in front of the world’s media – in Glasgow. What’s more, the SNP last week chose the dear green place to unveil education policies remarkably similar to those of their left-of-centre rivals. Their manifesto also guaranteed everyone aged from 16 to 24 a place in work or training and the refurbishment of schools.
Johann Lamont has been in a combative mood. At the manifesto launch she was quoted as saying: “Over the next two and a half weeks at least, let’s try to put the debates about borders between our two countries aside and talk about the social barriers which blight lives. Let’s have a battle of ideas. Let’s discuss how we deliver social justice at a time of scarce resources. Let’s talk about real lives, real communities and how we can work together to improve them.” Headline policies included creating new jobs and training opportunities, spending more on schools and greater support for childcare.
Lamont made reference to the “Scottishunemployment crisis”, saying councils must focus on jobs – herself pledging a job, training place or apprenticeship to 16to 24-yearolds in Glasgow and committing to offering apprenticeships in Dumfries and Galloway and the Highlands.
But a politically aggressive campaign by the SNP to eject Labour from Glasgow – which has 17,000 children living below the poverty line – has been brewing for a while. In some parts it is a given that an SNP win is a dead cert.
As Kevin McKenna, writing in The Observer, recently pointed out: “For Labour to lose control of Glasgow City Chambers to the SNP is nigh unthinkable and akin to waking up one morning and finding that Ian Paisley has taken control of the Vatican.” However, the SNP has another battle on its hands and this time it affects schoolchildren and teachers nationwide. No amount of reassurance ¬ financial or otherwise ¬ that the Government has pledged is enough to quell the fears of those grappling with the controversial Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) or smoothed the way for implementation. The council is run by a predominantly Labour-SNP coalition and has a powerful and defiant attitude regarding itsexcellent schools. Last year, three of its high schools were among the top five, based on Highers results achieved by the end of fifth year.
Education leaders caused a ruckus last month when the council deferred the roll-out of CfE by a year.
It is unlikely that would tip the coalition in Labour’s favour, but the distemper may cause problems elsewhere. Education Secretary Mike Russell has already announced a £3.5m rescue package for CfE and permitted all schools to postpone the change if they are not ready, despite previously dismissing widespread deferral.
However, it was recently revealed by a Stirling University investigation that Scotland’s teachers were “floundering in the dark”. It concluded that the new curriculum was too vague about what children should learn in the classroom.
Although its name was meant to be withheld, data was collected from Highland Council and its identity was revealed on Stirling University’s website. The results were damning. More teachers agreed than disagreed that CfE would damage some children’s prospects, others worried the first pupils to sit the exams would be “guinea pigs” whose education will suffer, and fewer than a third of teachers said they were “positive” about the curriculum’s development.
The news will be a blow to resurgent SNP hopefuls in the Highland Council elections, whoare hoping to take control. But the ramifications of such a profound and worrying report – which raised the possibility of a “postcode lottery” of CfE across the country – will be more widespread than in just one, albeit large, Scottish council. “It does not clearly specify the principles that underlie such an approach, instead talking in often vague terms about active learning,” found researchers Dr Mark Priestley and SarahMinty of Stirling University. “Moreover, while it clearly emphasises the importance of learning, and the centrality of the learner, it does not clearly articulate questions of what should be learned and why.” They concluded: “We warn against approaches which downgrade knowledge in favour of skills development.” Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), enteredthe fray last month. It is the first time the union has launched a manifesto for the Scottish local government elections. It called on councils to maintain teacher numbers and keep class sizes down amid fears that schoolchildren will suffer from the ongoing financial crisis. Also it demanded a “decent wage” for teachers and “no increase in contact time”. It has also called for teachers to be “properly rewarded for the jobs they do”, describing the present wage freeze at a time of rising inflation as “not sustainable”.
The issue of class sizes is a thorny one for the SNP, who came under fire for failing to deliver on a cap of 18 for Primary 1 classes.
It ended with the then education minister Fiona Hyslop being pilloried at committee after blaming everyone – councils, the recession, minority rule – but the Government for the failure. At one point, an exasperated Hyslop told councils she was ready to run everything from Edinburgh, singling out Labour-led Glasgow and accusing them of “deliberately refusing” to meet their class-size pledge. After a torrid few months of criticism, Hyslop lost her job and was replaced by Mike Russell.