Could the SNP be losing its charm?

You might find it hard to believe, but this here burd has been hovering over devolution since its inception/reconvening in 1999.  I really have seen them all come and go, heard it all before, and am often amazed at having any smidgeon of idealism left.  I do – I have plenty, probably more than it deserves frankly.  One day, I’m sure, I’ll be stuffed and mounted in a suitably obscure nook and cranny in Holyrood.  This burd woz here.

The earliest days of the Scottish Parliament were like an adult version of How do they do that.  Suddenly a sharp and invasive light was being shone on the workings of government and politicians were lining civil servants up to explain themselves and their arcane workings.  Learning to be accountable – or at least to give sufficient semblance of it so that the parties and their sniffer dogs would go away – was something they learned fast.  They had to.

There were a number of stushies and scandals in the early days.  The biggest was something or other to do with exams and the SQA.  I’d go and google it if I could be bovvered but it is a sign of how things were in those frantic early times that the headlines were dominated for weeks by an issue that caused the nascent Labour-Liberal Democrat administration no end of pain but which now, few can remember the detail of.  Whatever, accountability for errors was demanded and truly received.  Various mandarins’ heads appeared on plates, the quango was reformed and we all moved on.

It’s hard to believe – it’s the kind of tale that historians will recount incredulously, I feel – that we lost a First Minister due to nothing very much at all.  Henry McLeish fell on his sword not because  of double accounting of office sub-lets, rents and parliamentary allowances, but because he could not explain himself on the telly.  I can recall his appearance on BBC Question Time with every toe-curling utterance;  by the time Dimbleby had finished with him, I was literally in the foetal position.  But to have an FM resign over this?  Yep, welcome to the bright, new shiny dawn of Scottish politics where we expect whiter than white and the ability to string a sentence together.

Then we lost a Conservative leader over claiming the odd taxi erroneously for parliamentary responsibilities when he had in fact been on party business.  That little episode was accompanied by the frantic rustling of expense claims all over the old PHQ (it’s now the Missoni Hotel) as staffers and MSPs combed through years’ worth of theirs.  There was also an awful lot of emptying of piggy banks as rogue taxi journeys were suddenly repaid.

When McLetchie finally did the decent thing and took the fall so no-one else had to – good job really or we might not have had an MSP left – the collective sigh of relief was tangible.  No one, least of all McLetchie who seems like a pretty honourable and straight up and down man to me, had ever claimed a taxi journey not quite for purely parliamentary business deliberately;  but that wasn’t the point.  Blood was scented, the political hack-pack got its dander up, and a resignation became inevitable.  In Scotland, like the best, wee country in the world we had become, we like our scandals wee as well.

Over the years, everyone settled down into a rhythm and it all became rather anodyne.   And something key changed the political dynamic, in that the SNP decided to focus on the pursuit of power instead of settling for harrying in opposition.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Once in power, the SNP, having largely forged its political craft in opposition, knew exactly the kind of pitfalls and traps it had to avoid.  Its ability to manage the agenda was made easier thanks largely to the redoubtable and remarkable talents of Kevin Pringle, for whom sleep and holidays are anathema.  Labour, meanwhile, has struggled to work out which way up one opens the box marked opposition and changes in the ranks of political journalists and the loss of specialist correspondents, as well as introspective concern for their own industry’s fortunes, seemed to sap the media’s energy for political dust-ups.

All these – and many more – factors have conspired to provide the SNP with a charmed life.

How else to explain how the SNP escaped unscathed from having the most MSPs, including high-ranking government ministers, of any of the parties to use (and some might say, misuse) the parliamentary allowance scheme which allowed them to purchase flats in Edinburgh, pay the mortgages at the taxpayers’ expense and then sell them, pocketing the often huge capital gain in the process.  Some deigned to offer to pay the capital gains tax – has anyone bothered to check if they did?  We did nothing wrong was the cry at the time, but it didn’t seem very right either.

Currently, we have a brew of incompetence and intransigence of potentially enormous proportions in the failure of the education system and its serried ranks of vested interests to implement in any meaningful fashion the Curriculum for Excellence.   A few weeks ago, the Education Secretary assured us the final and vital phase relating to a switch in exam qualifications would go ahead.  Then he was forced to throw some money at it to help make this happen and now, he has had to offer schools the opportunity to delay if they need to.  Today, the teachers’ unions are bleating for still more concessions.

This is the major flagship education reform of our time.  It is huge and has been nine years in the making.  Work started on implementation as soon as the SNP came into power, five years ago.  And still we are not ready.   To be fair to Mike Russell, he inherited this mess rather than made it and is doing his best to sort it out.  But failure to get this right threatens the life chances of a generation of Scots – it is that serious.   And yet, no one has suggested that heads need to roll.   He is clearly deploying a policy of appeasement in order to get the job done but surely at some point, there needs to be accountability.  The problem is that having learned how to be accountable, many have spent these middle years of devolution mastering the art of how to bury the evidence and get away with it.

Health might prove a turning point.  This week, we’ve had not one but two stones skimmed across the political pond, and they are creating a bit of a bounce.  In the Health Secretary’s back yard, Labour alleged that old people were being left to shiver without blankets in hospital.  Nonsense cried the Government, but then Labour presented the First Minister with Exhibit A – the pensioners in person – this week in Holyrood.  One example does not a scandal make, but if Labour can find more hospital patients experiencing the same indignities, they might be on to something.

If they want to land a blow on the Health Secretary, they have their work cut out.  What’s the best way to diffuse a potential timebomb?  Announce it yourself.   Hence, Nicola Sturgeon, whose political streetsmarts were always way beyond her relatively tender years, laid bare the false accounting of waiting times going on at NHS Lothian and condemned it utterly.  Labour is now asking for an audit in other health board areas.  Deliberate massaging of key health policy is unforgiveable and if there has been wholesale fraud – in its truest sense – then an awful lot of senior health managers and chairpersons might want to start clearing their desks.

At last, Labour is showing small signs of getting its act together in being able to nose out potential scandals that might stick.  To date, the Scottish Government has shown huge skill at delivering on manifesto headlines, even if the reality behind the scenes is much less clearcut.   It has bossed the news agenda to a remarkable degree (despite what the SNP rank and file might think); its attitude to government enthused many government officers and that helped things along.  This gloss, in particular, is wearing thin and implementation “issues” are starting to appear.  Crucially too, the SNP has also enjoyed a very large dollop of luck.

So far, the wind has been set fair for this Scottish Government;  it will be interesting to see how it copes with a change in direction and these, and other as yet unidentified, squalls on the horizon.

What the education figures don’t tell us

Knowledge is power, so they say, and there’s nothing we policy wonks like better than a big dollop of data.  The denser the better.

So what to make of the decision last year by the Scottish Government to change how it publishes key data and statistics it gathers, especially in relation to education?  Now, we get headlines and selective publication.  Which is not to say the data is not available – it is, you just have to email all those nice people who work in government statistics, and past experience suggests they are only too happy to share the information.  They like it when folk show an interest in their life’s work.

But selective publication makes everyone immediately suspicious.  What are they trying to hide?  Nothing, says the Scottish Government, this is just more cost-effective.  Hmm.

The media has gone for splurge: in today’s newspapers, we are blinded by figures, and offered meaningless analysis.  Labour reckons that there is “a quiet crisis brewing” in our classrooms while Mike Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education, acknowledges progress is slow.

What has exercised everyone is the data relating to teacher numbers and contracts.  I love it when we focus on what really matters in education.  Teachers rather than weans: it was always thus.

It only matters if we can draw a straight line between teacher numbers and educational attainment, and this is where the difficulty with headline and snapshot reporting lies.  Educational attainment is up; the number of pupils leaving for “positive destinations” (further education, training or work to you and me) is also up, despite the difficult financial and employment conditions;  the total number of pupils is falling, in line with recent demographic changes.  Taking all that into account, do we need more teachers?  We should only be worried about teacher numbers if there is significant change in any of these other indicators.

But there is a big scarlet flag of concern relating to the numbers of children with additional support needs.  In 2010, the total number of children in school with additional support needs – that’s children with disabilities, learning difficulties, or who are looked after by the state, or who have other issues, both short and long term going on in their lives, which create the need for extra help to do well at school – was 69,587.  This year, the number appears to have rocketed to 97,492.  That’s a third more in one year.

Last year, the curious category of children “assessed/declared as disabled” was missing from the officially published figures;  this year, it’s back and according to the only statistic we have in Scotland that is gathered in any meaningful way, there are 14, 387 children with a disability.  This is largely similar to what was published in previous years.

But it is wrong, very wrong.  In fact, it is a gross under-estimate when compared to UK data for the number of children in receipt of Disability Living Allowance in Scotland which is well over 30,000.  And it begs the question, if we do not know – if our schools cannot say and are not aware – how many disabled children with a likely learning support need there are, how can we ensure these children are being adequately supported to enjoy an equitable learning experience?

For years, the data gathered by schools, for schools has been inaccurate, and there have been sterling efforts to improve the recording categories and the quality of data input.  It is likely that the huge increase in numbers of children with additional support needs is down to these efforts, rather than any explosion of children with such needs.  But what we now do not know is if these children have equivalent levels of attainment and get to go on to college and university, training and work in similar numbers to other children, because this disaggregated data is no longer published.

This matters.  Why?

Because we know that local authorities have cut and are intending to cut more learning, classroom and special needs auxiliary and assistant posts from their education budgets.  So more pupils with more support needs, fewer people to support them.

And we also know – or at least I and others do – that the outcomes for children with disabilities and additional support needs have historically been significantly poorer than other children.  Fewer gain qualifications, fewer go on to college and university, fewer go on to training or work, more are likely to be excluded.  Unless we have access to the data showing all this we have no way of determining if we are making progress for some of the most marginalised children in our communities.  And whether or not the cuts in assistants are having a detrimental impact on their life chances.

Moreover, we also know that in disadvantaged and deprived communities, there are likely to be more children with additional support needs.  We need a more detailed breakdown of the figures in order to determine if the average statistics on things like attainment, teacher pupil ratios, state of the school estate, children with additional support needs and leavers’ positive destinations mask huge differentials between wealthier and poorer communities.

And maybe if we had easy access to this level of detail, we would be able to focus and comment on what really matters.  Not teachers but children.  And whether or not government policy, budgeting decisions by central and local government, and local authority practice are making a difference to the children who need our help most.

Is current education policy and practice reducing or sustaining inequality, poverty and social injustice?  Be nice if anyone knew or indeed, cared.


Teaching our weans how to be Scottish

We’ll ignore Scottish Labour’s puerile contribution but in sending Ken Macintosh homewards to think again, he might want to ponder this post on the journey.  As well as generating a considerable amount of debate, the Scottish Government’s proposal to introduce Scottish studies into the school curriculum has prompted some meanderings through my own experiences of education for evidence of Scottish cultural input.

Constantly, throughout my childhood, we were corrected if we used the dialect and idioms of Galloway Irish;  indeed, I recall classmates being belted for it.  At the same time, in primary five, we were taught about the wars of independence and Galloway’s role in these was given pride of place.  The literature we studied throughout secondary school definitely had a Scottish flavour – Edwin Muir, Robert Burns, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Sunset Song all featured.   But history offered little beyond the agrarian revolution;  geography a smattering of topological input, of which raised beaches running all the way down the Ayrshire coast is about all I can recall;  and in Modern Studies in sixth year, we studied Scottish aspirations for devolution through a distinctly Labourite prism, courtesy of the teacher and despite my best efforts to disabuse him of his prejudices against the SNP.

The Big Yin, by contrast, whose education is much more recent, had very little study of a Scottish flavour, except perhaps in geography where I seem to recall the topology and geology of the Highlands boring him endlessly.  None of his texts were Scottish, history still covered the same topic areas as in my day, although Burns featured briefly in January and all things Scottish around St Andrew’s Day.   The chicklet is just at the start of his educational journey and frankly, apart from Scotland’s annual outing in November, I’m toiling to see any evidence of his being given a sense of his Scottishness so far, except for one episode when he came home drawing the Union flag and declaring it “Scottish” as taught by the teacher.  A bout of intensive home work soon sorted that one.

So why the difference?  Well, having got to know some of my teachers in later life, it is clear that their own patriotism influenced the approach they took to teaching.  Their love of country and its culture and heritage was something they clearly wanted others to share.  Moreover, they probably had greater flexibility in how they taught the curriculum than now.

Of course, a fully rounded education must offer much more than Scottish content.  As a firm advocate of the Curriculum for Excellence, I believe our children and young people will get the values, skills and knowledge they need to *fulfil their potential* and have *improved life chances*, despite the disdain with which others treat it.  The problem is that much of the current commentary around education past, present and future is led by some of the old Scottish comprehensive education system’s successes.  Those of us who saw education as the route to life’s choices and riches, who stuck in, who excelled at exams, who liked to study and learn for the sake of it.

That ain’t the world our children face or despite our best efforts, the attitude they display.  At the age of twenty, young people face at least another fifty years of work ahead of them before retirement.   The environment in which they work and live will shift constantly, perhaps even more so than in the last twenty years.  When I was at university, PCs were cloistered in a special room and students like me who could type were everyone’s best pal in the last few weeks of each term:  today I met an eleven year old who got an ipad for his birthday.

To ask, therefore, callow fourteen year olds to pick the subjects that will govern their direction and work pattern in adult life is just plain daft.  With fifty years’ prospect of work, young people need to be equipped with a core of skills and knowledge that will enable them to have two, possibly three different careers or types of work in their life.  With jobs for life a thing of the past, our young people need to leave school with an all-round knowledge about many subject areas, but most especially, a set of transferable skills.  We want them to be competent, confident and resilient, to be capable of investing in their own wellbeing, of analysing and solving problems, to show initiative, to work as a team, to know how to adapt, to direct and manage their lives – money, family, work and relationships – effectively and successfully, and to know their rights but also accept their responsibilities.

Which brings us to the current proposal to *teach* Scottish studies to school children.  It is sad that it has come to this really.  That those nine years and more that our children are shoehorned into schools currently contains little that enables them to appreciate from whence many of them came, from what the country they live in is made of (in the fullest sense), to feel pride at what Scotland has contributed to the world by way of discovery, literature, art, invention and medicine and to give them a sense of who they are and who they might be.  But when you marry this with the skillset we need to imbue our children and young people with to succeed as adults, it suddenly makes an awful lot of sense.

You can also find this blogpost at Herald online – where it also, rather niftily, links into Sean McPartlin’s post on the same subject.  Good huh?