Gina Davidson: SNP must learn over education

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HEADY days for the SNP. I’ll admit to having to scrape my jaw from the floor at the extent of the party’s success last week, but it had been very obvious it would do extremely well.

So now what? The happy band of 56 are in Westminster getting to grips with the archaic traditions of the House of Commons and no doubt reeling at the enormity of the office mailbag. It will take a while to see if they will actually achieve anything more than sound and fury given the Conservative majority which allows David Cameron to ignore any and all demands should he so choose.

And in the meantime the SNP at Holyrood is basking in the reflected glory. Well that needs to stop for there is much work to do for a party which claims to put social justice first and foremost, yet is presiding over an increasing gap between the poorest and richest in our education system.

In all the election campaigning – where education was barely mentioned given it is a Holyrood matter – you may have missed the revelation that reading standards among primary pupils aged eight and nine have fallen by five per cent in three years. Furthermore it was, as always, pupils in schools in the most deprived areas who performed least well. Or as the Scottish Parent Teacher Council says: “The gap in attainment between children from the least and most deprived homes remains stubbornly in place.”

To spell it out: the poorest children are going backwards. And as has been proved time and again, not getting the best out of primary school, not getting the basics, leads to disaffection at high school and the kiss goodbye to any chance of further education (FE) and possibly even any job prospects.

Furthermore the EIS says there has been a drop in teacher numbers, teacher workloads are rising, budget cuts have reduced resources, and class sizes are rising. But it doesn’t take a trade union to tell parents what they know is happening on the ground.

And this week it’s the turn of the further education sector. Edinburgh College has revealed applications for places have dropped sharply, in fact they are in a state of “precipitous decline” and could fall even further.

The college hasn’t had its troubles to seek since the merger of Stevenson, Telford and Jewel & Esk colleges. Last year it had to cut £1.7 million from its budget, which included the axing of 70 jobs. Then its principal resigned.

But the real problem is the lack of support it receives from Holyrood, where the SNP has made it clear that the protection of the policy of no 
tuition fees for (mostly middle class) university students is the main priority.

FE colleges have seen part-time and short courses cut – the kind of courses people in work might apply for to try and get further up the career ladder, or women looking to return to the workplace might look to join. Recently the average age of Edinburgh College students was 27: an age when those uninterested in education when they were younger might finally have discovered its benefits.

But in five years the number of students applying for FE courses in Edinburgh has fallen by 40 per cent. Across Scotland in the last three years the number of students has dropped by 108,000. They have not all suddenly been accepted by universities. More likely it’s the fact that bursaries have been slashed.

With the poorest kids at primary falling further behind in literacy, with the poorest students – financially and educationally – being slowly shut out of FE, the SNP needs to ask itself some searching questions regarding the social justice to which it aspires. Social justice, social mobility, begins and ends with education.

TAKEN OFF TOO MUCH

I was one of the 928,329 people who passed through Edinburgh Airport’s security system last month. It was scarily efficient. And huge. Of course it’s great to be able to fly to more destinations from Edinburgh but am I alone in missing the old, smaller, more cuddly airport?

Churches need Mair like him

DRIVING through Gracemount last week, I was saddened to see that old Burdiehouse Church has gone and all that’s left is wasteland.

Growing up it was a place of coffee mornings, Brownies and Guide meetings, Boys’ Brigade bugle playing, toddler playgroups, as well as church services, Sunday school, weddings and funerals. A place at the heart of the community.

The Church of Scotland has just launched a recruitment drive for ministers, led by a 26-year-old Broomhouse minister boasting a hipster beard.

Rev Michael Mair, above, of St David’s says being part of the community is “phenomenal” and a “privilege”. It’s a terrible shame that the community of Gracemount, Southhouse and Burdiehouse no longer has the ability to attract someone like him.

Boroughmuir bid never in doubt

THE city council was between a rock and a hard place over the selling of the old Boroughmuir High School. There was its public fiduciary duty to get the most money it could – and Cala Homes is offering £14m for the site – and then there was the call of the community, the political pull to do something more worthwhile, like the Out of the Blue plans, which only offered the council coffers £6.2m.

Sadly, a local authority can’t act like farmer Robert Worsley of Sussex, who turned down £275m for his land from housing developers because he wants to protect the community and countryside.

Edinburgh needs more homes on brownfield sites – and £14m could be put to good use. Everyone knew how this one was going to end.