A testing year
Over the past year, with hundreds of referendum debates being staged in Scotland’s schools, the issue of independence entered the education system in a literal sense.
On the face of it, education should not have been one of the areas to form a battleground in the independence debate, even if the decision to grant the vote to 16 and 17 year olds meant that it inevitably would.
The conventional wisdom said that issues of currency, EU membership, defence and pensions should have been the places where ballots were to be won and lost.
Education may be devolved to the Scottish Parliament but the future of education has been central to the way it has unfolded.
Childcare has formed a central plank of the debate, with Yes and Better Together going head to head in an effort to convince voters that their vision offers the best rosiest future for the young.
To Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s Education Spokeswoman, childcare moving to the top of the political agenda has been one of the most welcome developments in the campaign.
“Before the referendum came along childcare wasn’t at the top of the education agenda, let alone the political agenda but it is now and it needs to stay there because it serves a number of different political purposes. It is about women’s participation in the Labour market, it is key to challenging attainment, it is key to tackling poverty, it is one of those areas that, if you get it right will have positive ramifications right across the whole system. So we have got to keep it there – but we need to change the way we talk about it.
“I am fed up with talking about hours of childcare. First it was 412, then it was 475, now we are talking about 600. Ed Balls was talking about 950, the White Paper was 1150 – the debate is always in hours. It never looks at the real detail which is about responsibility and quality and access.”
Another positive that Dugdale takes from the year was the decision to extend support for those in care up to 21 years old.
“In terms of media coverage it was the named person aspect that got most of the heat, but it became this very binary debate around the state’s role in young people’s lives and it missed the point of what we were trying to do in terms of additional protection.
“Underneath that named person aspect there was some really good stuff that didn’t get the exposure it should have done – like the idea that we can give people who are leaving care the right to return to care at any point up to their 21st birthday. We have a wider aspiration that at some point that could become 25, but to get it up to 21 is a massive improvement for the rights of care leavers. If we are serious about tackling educational inequality then we need to look at the biggest challenge, and that is those that are furthest removed from attainment at the moment and that includes care leavers.”
As Dugdale says, despite the widespread agreement that increased protection for care leavers was a step forward, most of the controversy generated stemmed from the named person aspect of the legislation, stoking fears that the state was trying to reach into family life and now subject to a legal challenge.
Liz Smith told Holyrood: “We had a fundamental problem with the named person aspect on two counts – firstly, that we believe it undermines the responsibility and authority that parents have – the idea that you have a named person and all the complications that we believe meant it was a very statist approach. It imposed new duties on the healthcare visitor and on teachers afterwards and it is simply not necessary. The second reason is that it takes away valuable, scarce resources from our most vulnerable children. We had a problem with it on a theoretical, philosophical basis but also on a pragmatic one too – we simply don’t accept that there is a need to have the named person on a universal basis up to 18.”
She continued: “The legislation is fundamentally flawed in terms of having a 16-18 year old needing a named person. I find the idea that you could have a young couple with a baby, each needing to have a named person – you could have three or four in one family. It is the kind of policymaking that Scotland neither needs nor wants.
I think when people realise the difficulties, opposition will grow and people do not like the idea of a state guardian at all. It is a big bureaucratic programme that smacks of the nanny state and interferes with the right to privacy and the right to family life and I would be opposed to it for that reason alone.”
To Dugdale, the increased prominence given to childcare was a reflection of what she calls the SNP’s women problem – another issue raised by the referendum.
Dugdale says: “The way the debate has been conducted stems from a sense of frustration that we don’t talk about educational inequality enough. I have been an MSP for three years now and I have been in the education post for over a year and we have skirted around it maybe once or twice in the chamber, but we need to have a fundamental debate about why it is that children from working-class backgrounds don’t achieve and what it is that we can do about that. We are getting closer to it now with the Wood Commission and the idea that you can have more of a vocational base in school or take them out for vocational training earlier.”
The Wood Commission – examining how to improve vocational training in an effort to tackle youth unemployment – offers a further example of the way that education is used to transform society. The referendum debate too is about change and in this sense it should be no surprise that the education system has become entwined with it.
As Alison Johnson puts it: “There are massive societal and economic benefits to having a highly educated population but as the Wood Commission showed, that education does not need to take place entirely in our universities – it can take place in lots of different forms, it could be on the workplace floor, it could be in our colleges and so I think we should always be striving for that highly educated population but we mustn’t get hung up thinking that it can only happen in universities.
“I would like to see more positive roles for women and girls – they need to be shown those opportunities from a primary-school age, along with ethnic minorities that are not benefiting as much as they could. The Scottish Government says that more women are on Modern Apprenticeships but a lot of the most popular ones are still highly segregated in terms of gender. If a young woman has a passion to work in childcare that is something to encourage but we need to make sure that young men understand that it might not be a career path they have considered but it is one that they may find really rewarding. It is the same too with engineering – we have a skills gap and we need to make sure we are emphasising the opportunities that studying STEM subjects can offer because there are some fantastic career opportunities out there and it is high value, well paid work.”
There are also concerns that the focus on youth unemployment – though critical – will lead to a drop in support for older learners, given the cuts in funding to Scotland’s colleges.
Lib Dem Liam McArthur sits on the Education Committee. He says: “There is a big concern about the drop, in particular of older learners and those with disabilities. I think it has been a slow burn and I don’t think anyone denies the importance of doing more to help with youth unemployment but there are question marks over the price that has been paid and the pressure that has been put on colleges. The budget cuts have stored up longer-term problems in terms of the commitment to lifelong learning.”
McArthur, like other opposition members of the Education Committee, has been frustrated in his attempts to raise these issues with the Government.
“Over the last few years there has been the constant refrain that things will be fixed by independence. Mike, more than any other Cabinet Secretary, is prone to lapsing into precisely that rhetoric. Yet some of the most glaring holes in the White Paper can be found in areas that are Mike Russell’s responsibility, but anyone who says that is accused of showing a lack of ambition for Scottish education. That is a pretty infantile way of dealing with genuine concerns.”
Dugdale too is critical of the Government’s attitude towards opposition questions. The decision to roll out the new Curriculum for Excellence across Scotland, rather than trialling it more extensively in a small number of schools, is a case in point.
“I think there was a dogmatic determination from Mike Russell to just get it done. That response prevailed every time questions were raised – ‘this will happen because I said it will happen’, therefore it will happen no matter how challenging it is in terms of teaching resources and staff time and all the rest of it. He wanted the new qualifications in come hell or high water and to a large extent that is what happened.”