Sketch: Parliament debates the Education Bill
Agreement in Parliament is a rare commodity. It’s like tasteful toilet cubicle graffiti: you only really know it when you see it, and it doesn’t guarantee you are in a good place.
So maybe the debate over the education bill was healthy. Certainly there were dozens of amendments, from all sides of the house.
SNP MSP George Adam started off by explaining the purpose of his own.
“If we believe that poverty is a factor in educational attainment, then we must look at poverty-related educational issues. I believe that many children from our poorest areas are experiencing both financial poverty and poverty of speech and language. If they turn up at school in Primary 1 unable to communicate in a way that will help them to engage, then they will struggle for the rest of their school life.”
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Moving on, he explained: “When we talk about poverty, we have to look at the larger picture. If we say that poverty is an issue, then we also have to look at how to address the issue.”
Iain Gray then followed with something pretty rare for a Labour MSP – he agreed with the SNP amendment. Well, not completely.
“Mr Adam said that we need to look at the bigger picture,” Gray said, “but I argue that we need also to look at the smaller picture if we are seriously going to address the attainment gap.”
Oh dear. Just when we thought there was agreement. Still, at least their positions were clear – the SNP like big pictures, while Labour like smaller ones. A party supporting medium-sized pictures could surely seize the political centre ground. It didn’t really matter, though. In the end, Adam agreed to withdraw his amendments on the basis his points were covered elsewhere.
Lib Dem Liam McArthur came next to raise an amendment that would have forced the Government to drop plans for national standardised testing in primary schools. He said teaching unions, teachers and parents all oppose standardised testing, which he said oversimplifies problems in education.
Continuing, he said: “The emeritus professor of education at the University of Strathclyde observed last week that ‘it is notable that the last time such an approach was introduced was by a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher’.”
Now, at times, Scottish politics can seem very complicated. It is easy to get lost amid all the pointing and shrieking and the endless debate over whether pictures should be big, small, or indeed, whether the picture size is relevant at all. There is basically just one rule – don’t get compared to Thatcher. That’s about as bad as it gets.
Gray backed McArthur, informing the chamber: “We have been critical of the approach that the Scottish Government – and the First Minister, in particular – have taken to the debate on national standardised testing.”
This is true – though of course, Scottish Labour has been critical of the approach that the Scottish Government – and the First Minister, in particular – have taken to almost everything.
On this, though, Labour and the SNP could see eye-to-eye. Standardised testing should remain in the bill.
It was McArthur, and probably the Thatcher reference, that drew Angela Constance’s ire.
She was “disappointed”, she said, that Liam McArthur’s amendments “take no account of the progress that we have made to secure consensus on our approach”.
“Given that consensus, I cannot understand why Liam McArthur is again trying to remove standardised assessment from the National Improvement Framework.”
That seemed to make sense. Someone disagreeing with you is certainly inconvenient if you are trying to claim there’s consensus.
But McArthur wasn’t done yet: “When she talks about the consensus that exists, she must recognise that, equally, there is a consensus in opposition that is concerned about the approach that is being taken in relation to imposition of national testing in primary schools.”
There can’t really be two consensuses within a consensus. At least there was one consensus emerging – everyone disagreed. Unfortunately for McArthur, his consensus, with nine people in it, was smaller than the Government’s consensus, which had 107. McArthur’s motion was defeated.
But after all the disagreement, a somewhat unlikely truce emerged, as all the political parties unanimously agreed to pass the legislation anyway.
You can’t please everyone. The debate proved as much.
As Constance put it in summing up: “I have been a minister for five years and this is my first piece of legislation. I am quite sure that, when I get home tonight, my eight-year-old will be somewhat disappointed that the bill does not include provisions that ban singing practice, dancing with girls or homework.”
They’ll just have to agree to disagree.