College “was a lifeline”: Interview with Mary Scanlon MSP
Given the well-rehearsed political problems faced by the Scottish Conservatives, it helps when they have credibility on policy, and in education they have a good recent track record. There was surprise and not a little disappointment when Liz Smith MSP, a former school teacher who had served with distinction as education spokesperson since 2010, was given a reduced role limited to young people in a reshuffle last September. Her replacement, however, brings just as much first-hand experience to the role, as well as a personal commitment to further education to rival any in the chamber.
Mary Scanlon left school at 15 without any Highers or O-levels. For three years, she worked jobs in Montrose and Dundee, and it was only when she met a friend who was doing her Highers at night school that returning to education occurred to her. “I thought it sounded interesting and I signed up for Higher English.” She eventually got four Highers and four O-levels, as well as a typing qualification, enough to get a job teaching night classes herself at Dundee College of Commerce.
That was the year the first of her two children were born, and Scanlon’s story of returning to education, finding work and raising a family at the same time would be impressive enough – if it wasn’t for the fact that she did it on her own. When their children were aged one and two, Scanlon’s husband “walked away from the marriage”. It left her looking to find ways to support her family in challenging circumstances.
The answer was to go to university – not the obvious choice for a 29-year-old single mother with two young children at home, and certainly not one that a woman in the same position today could make, given the way university funding has changed in the past 30 years. “I saw a sign at college to apply to UCAS, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I’ve got what I need to do that,’ and it would actually suit my circumstances. So it wasn’t that going to university was part of a big grand plan founded on great ambition, it’s because it suited my domestic circumstances,” says Scanlon. “I think it was the best thing I did in my entire life.”
She was accepted to the University of Dundee, and despite the support of her parents and in-laws, her choices were still shaped by her personal circumstances. “I chose the subjects that were available between nine o’clock and three o’clock. Anything outwith those hours, I couldn’t do. So economics was nine o’clock in the morning, and that was why I chose economics.
“I just loved university. It brought me in touch with a whole range of people that I would never normally meet, and I made some wonderful friends. I just found it invigorating, exciting, liberating, and there were other single parents there, male and female, who had reached a similar crossroads in their life.” After graduating, she took on teaching roles at Dundee College of Technology – which later became AbertayUniversity – followed by PerthCollege and the University of the Highlands and Islands, where she worked until her election in 1999.
Given the self-reliance evident in her personal story, Scanlon’s conservatism isn’t particularly surprising, although you would struggle to find many Tories amongst further education college staff today. In fact, she says, she inherited her politics from her parents, in particular her father. “He was a farm labourer from Morayshire, and I think if you go back into the annals of history, they were probably told by the laird to vote Conservative, but he held every basic Conservative principle in the book.”
The demands of raising two young children on her own while studying meant that there was little time for Scanlon to engage in political activity as a student. “I always had to rush home at three o’clock to get my children, so I was never part of the normal political debates or anything. I missed out on that. I think most of my friends at university were actually surprised when I left and got involved in the Conservative Party. They didn’t even know what my politics were.”
She first stood for the party at local elections in Dundee in the 1980s – “that was my big ambition in life, to be a councillor in Dundee” – but was active in her local party for over a decade before that, if not in a meaningful way initially. The Iron Lady may have been knocking on the door of Downing Street, but in the shires, Tory women were just ironing – and baking. “At that time if you were a woman you were generally asked to bake scones and shortbread. They weren’t really looking for a political contribution, whereas I was more interested in getting involved in political discussion.”
Her background gives Scanlon a personal insight into a policy issue that is simultaneously at the heart of the debate over the cost of living and independence: childcare. “I’ve been there. I’ve got that t-shirt.” Family help was essential, with her mother often doing the to-and-fro from nursery, where Scanlon had a priority place because she was a single parent. It was still difficult, though. “Anything out of the ordinary – say an exam that finished after three o’clock – I had to get someone to look after the children,” she says of her time at university.
Availability and affordability of childcare remain significant challenges for parents, keeping the issue high on the political agenda. Quality at least has improved, Scanlon says – but staff pay hasn’t kept pace. “One thing I do feel very strongly about is that mostly people working in a nursery now have to have at least a HNC, but they’re still mainly paid the minimum wage, and for many people working in our nurseries, they could get paid more and have more flexible hours if they stacked shelves in a supermarket.”
Despite being new to the education brief, Scanlon has taken a keen personal interest in the issue of rural education throughout her parliamentary career representing the Highlands and Islands. She rattles off a list of contradictory closure decisions and ministerial call-ins over the past decade that have left parents and pupils struggling to comprehend the “confusing messages” from government. Local authorities have gotten better at consultation – they now “understand the meaning of the word” – but Scanlon fears that new mechanisms to deal with closures will offer rural communities precious little additional security.
The latest round of school estate proposals from Moray Council are on her desk. “I can remember going to look at a fairly similar set of options with Margaret Ewing in the year 2000. Fourteen years later, we’re still looking at the same options.” Scanlon says she does not want to see pupils bussed long distances, nor schools with two pupils kept open at a cost of £100,000 a year – as happened at CabrachSchool in Moray in 2008 – but her biggest concern is with the sustainability of communities that lose their village school.
“When the village school goes, the post office goes, and then all you have is a satellite commuter village where people drive to Tesco for their shopping and drive home. The school is sold off as a house, and there’s no meeting place, no hall, and that community spirit has gone,” she says. “There’s not doubt that closing a rural school makes a community less attractive for young couples to move to, and it becomes more like a retirement village.”
Under her predecessor, the Tories were as effective as Labour at opposing the Scottish Government’s cuts to college budgets, despite supporting the regionalisation programme that went hand in hand. Scanlon is determined to keep up the pressure. “I think what’s happened to the colleges is unforgivable. Had they only been able to look at the merger programme, to get that settled, and then down the line begin to look at economies of scale, then that would be different.”
Today’s young people, faced with the same decisions she had to make, aren’t able to access the same opportunities she did, Scanlon claims. “I think it is shocking beyond belief that further education colleges who do so much to reduce the inequality gap, to give people like me, the first in my family to go anywhere near a university or a college, to give people like me the chance to get the qualifications to do better in life to help my family, I think it’s shocking beyond belief the drastic, drastic cuts that colleges have had to face.
“If I turn the clock back, if I was that person now, looking to do my Higher English night class at 18 years old, there would be very few night classes at college for me. Generally speaking, the doors are locked. The part-time courses have gone because there’s a dismissive attitude that anyone doing a part-time course is on a hobby course. Well believe this: it wasn’t a hobby for me, it was a lifeline.”