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Imagined corners

Imagined corners

Some argue free education is a Scottish idea, born during the 16th century reformation with an expansion of parish schools, and characterised by George Elder Davie’s book, The Democratic Intellect in 1961. Scotland’s cultural identity, it is argued, is intellectual, enlightened and universal.

But while differences in education policy north and south of the border have further drifted apart since the 1980s, surveys suggest attitudes have not. The most notorious recent policy divergence is of course on student fees, but according to the 2013 British and Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys, 69 per cent of people in England support means-tested fees, compared to 64 per cent in Scotland.
It hasn’t stopped both sides of the referendum debate having used the divergence on fees as a political weapon though. The Yes campaign has cited the policy as an example of how deep rooted the political difference between the countries is, and No campaigners have questioned the legality of such a policy in an independent Scotland. Sir David Edward, a former judge of the European Court of Justice, recently said the Scottish Government’s plan to continue its existing tuition fees policy after independence would be “incompatible” with European Union law and “could not survive challenge” in the courts.
On comprehensive schooling, however, Scotland has been consistently keener. While diversity has been pursued in England since the 1980s, Scotland has maintained comprehensive, non-selective secondary schools. In the 2010 British and Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, 68 per cent were in favour of comprehensive schools, compared to 51 per cent in England. Despite this and the commitment to address attainment inequality as a focus of the Curriculum for Excellence, those in the lowest twenty per cent still have little chance of getting the grades needed to get a place at university. As geographic inequalities in income widen, are schools truly comprehensive anymore?
Inequality has been a buzzword of the Yes campaign, who have insisted independence would allow Scotland to put education as a higher priority by protecting free education and providing an expansion to childcare provision through the nursery school system. Nicola Sturgeon used a BBC television debate to say it was personal. “I feel so strongly that having had that privilege, as a politician now and able to sit here partly because of that free education, I have got no right to pull that ladder of opportunity up behind me. I’ll never be part of anything in politics that takes that away,” she said. Education Secretary Michael Russell said free education could be included in a written constitution. 
Labour have been quick to point out flaws in the SNP’s policy, however. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote for the Progress website: “In the case of tuition fees, the SNP has replaced some of the grants given to the poorest students with extra loans at higher interest rates, meaning that low-income students will graduate with higher debts whereas students from more affluent backgrounds – who receive free tuition and do not need to borrow – are likely to graduate with little debt, if any at all.”
Teacher’s union the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) has held several debates across the country in the lead-up to the referendum to allow their members to question politicians on the key challenges and priorities for Scottish education. General Secretary Larry Flanagan told Holyrood: “Education has faced many challenges in recent years, including the difficulties created by the financial crisis and the cost-cutting austerity agenda. Teachers and pupils have faced the challenges of a major programme of curricular change, which has placed additional workload and strain on everyone within the school community.”
Nevertheless, he added: “Scottish education continues to be held in high esteem, with a broad consensus across the country in support of current Scottish education policy and priorities. By organising these debates to facilitate members asking the important questions, the EIS hopes to help ensure a continuing bright future for education in post-referendum Scotland no matter what the result.”
Promises on childcare expansion, too, have come under scrutiny. Nursery teachers have expressed concerns that it might result in quantity over quality, with local authorities potentially opting to take qualified teachers out of nursery provision in order to afford the extra hours. In March Children’s Minister Aileen Campbell insisted to Holyrood it would have to be of high quality, appointing childcare expert Professor Iram Siraj to undertake a review of the early years workforce. Opposition benches have criticised the White Paper’s assertion that the policy would pay for itself through tax revenues raised by women returning to work. In April the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (Spice) said the Scottish Government would need to get nearly twice as many women out to work than are currently inactive to meet the economic projections. “The analysis does not set out any information on the current labour market situation of women with children,” Spice reported.
Another hot topic of the debate has been the future of research funding. Based on work by Aberdeen University principal Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the Scottish Government proposed in the White Paper to maintain a “common research area” with other countries in the British Isles after independence, and to have an immigration policy which suited non-Scots graduates.
The continuation of UK-wide funding has been questioned, though. A recent letter by 65 professors expressed serious concerns over the future of research in an independent Scotland. “For more than a hundred years Scotland has enjoyed an outstanding international reputation in the clinical and biomedical sciences. Sustaining this excellence has been enormously helped by the ability of our clinicians and scientists to compete very effectively for funding from the UK Research Councils and the large biomedical charities,” the letters says.
Better Together’s Professor Hugh Pennington adds: “Our universities and the research projects they produce are the envy of the world. We have the talent but also because we punch above our weight to secure UK research investment we would not have access to otherwise.”
Professor Anne Glover, who was the Chief Scientific Adviser to former European Commission President Manuel Barroso, told Holyrood in July the impact of science done in Scotland was number one in the world relative to GDP. “On the 19th of September I don’t see that changing because if I am in China or in North America I want to work with the best and if the best are in Scotland, I’m still going to work with the best,” she said.  

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