Brian Monteith: Hands up if you want education prioritised

Schools should be allowed to manage their own budgets and appoint their own staff. Picture: Getty

Schools should be allowed to manage their own budgets and appoint their own staff. Picture: Getty

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Will this be the year education became the biggest issue in Scotland? It is hard to imagine any topic that will push Scottish independence off the SNP’s agenda – but if anything can then education is it.

Indeed our very own First Minister made it the issue to judge her by when she said about education in August 2015, “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”

Pubs should be able to apply for a special licence to allow smoking on the premises. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Pubs should be able to apply for a special licence to allow smoking on the premises. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Since then Scotland’s educational performance has only worsened; literacy and numeracy is falling; international comparisons in maths, reading and science have fallen behind other countries such as Estonia, Finland and Slovenia (and of course England).

It is no better in the early years, which is often said by our politicians to be their biggest priority. Yet we found out last week that the number of nursery inspections by Education Scotland, the quango given the responsibility for monitoring standards, has fallen by a third in five years – and is expected to fall again this year. Can someone please get a grip?

Another report shows the amount of Scots gaining entrance to Scottish universities is suffering due to a restriction on numbers placed by the SNP government.

The funding cap is in force so that everyone can get “free tuition” – which is of course a transfer of public resources from low-income taxpayers to the middle classes.

The SNP’s cut in bursary grants doubly punishes students from poor backgrounds, making the idea of a meritocratic socially mobile Scotland wishful thinking. How ironic that pupils whose parents were paying for school tuition suddenly get free university places – but pupils from low-income families can’t afford university because of the lack of decent bursaries.

The evidence is plain to see, in England where tuition fees exist there is a larger proportion of students from low-income families going to university than in Scotland.

Whatever one thinks of the principle of “free” tuition fees as a theory, in practice it is simply not delivering a greater participation of poorer students. It’s time to drop this policy too.

It is time for Nicola Sturgeon to step up to the plate and take action. We need more inspections of schools and nurseries so that standards are robust. We need to give schools more say in running themselves, let them manage their own budgets and appoint their own staff. And let’s help our students by focusing resources on more and higher bursaries to help the poorest rather than giving a benefit to everyone no matter how wealthy they are.

Roll up for a smokers’ bar

I had a great weekend down at the boozer. The pub had a happy hour(!) between 5pm and 7pm – and then a second one between 9pm and 10pm – making the whisky only £2.10 for a double.

Better still, smoking was allowed inside and my wife and I could smoke our cigars without having to put our coat on and brave the frozen chill. Indeed the barmaid stood at the bar puffing away during her break.

No, I wasn’t back in a time warp before the 2006 smoking ban, I was actually in Leipzig, Germany, where bans on happy hours and smoking inside bars don’t exist. There were no drunken youths roaming the streets looking for fights, girls on hen nights making fools of themselves – nor were there any fag ends littering the streets outside the bars. Oh, and it was a gay bar as well. In Scotland it’s harder to be a smoker than gay. Why can’t we be tolerant of both lifestyles?

Cigar smoke, happy hours and puritan-free pubs – what a combination – what a shame Scottish pubs can’t apply for a special licence to allow them to operate as private clubs with more relaxed rules.

Discrimination is an age-old story

It is outrageous that in 2017 we still have age discrimination – practised in the public sector by our own government – but we do.

Currently, the legal entitlement to government-funded nursery provision starts the term after a child turns three, meaning that, for example a child born in August receives a full two years, or 1200 hours of government-funded provision before starting school. However, a child born in September will receive only 18 months, or 1000 hours and a child born in January will receive only 15 months, or 800 hours.

This is easily sorted by allowing a more flexible approach so that all children start in August irrespective of age. What’s stopping our Education Minister?

Willpower will be put to test

My birthday weekend carousing in Deutschland has now come to an abrupt halt as I try to cut out the booze in January, usually through until Valentines Day.

This can be especially challenging if I have a few Burns Suppers to go to. Then there’s my wife’s birthday at the end of the month too,. Maybe I should allow myself a modest tipple those nights and stretch the dry periods between them to the end of February? Actually, March is looking much easier, so maybe I should postpone the whole idea.

But wait, when I go on the scales after my daily soak I will feel depressed and resolve to stop drinking and go on a diet. There’s no other way, I’ll have to take the plunge and test my willpower. I’ll report back in six weeks’ time.