Education, education, education. Who can forget that famous Labour Party line from the 1997 election? It was a brilliant piece of marketing for although it was, on its own, completely banal and meaningless, the repetition of the one word gave an emphasis to how improvement in education provision was at the heart of New Labour’s promise.
It meant raising standards, more opportunity, it meant meritocracy, it meant anything you wanted it to mean – so long as it was about how education would be improved and become a vehicle for parents’ aspirations for their children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles could all sign up to that, too – and even those without families liked it because it made them feel better about what Labour would deliver. It was about improving the public good – and who could be against that?
It was genius, really.
Of course, it came in for a lot of ribbing from comics and opponents, parodies were thought up – corruption, corruption, corruption etc – but when we look back at it New Labour did actually deliver on a lot of its promise to improve education in real and comparative terms. So much so that, thanks to New Labour’s education reforms, the performance of school pupils in England improved so much that they began to overtake and outrank Scottish pupils’ scores. This was confirmed by a number of international studies and Scotland has never since regained its previous position of being the best place to educate an ordinary kid from an ordinary home in the UK.
New Labour had thrown away its ideological straightjacket and its communist-inspired equality-before-quality teaching manual and instead recognised that diversity in approach, inspirational leadership by championing headteachers, allowing competition between schools and the availability of real information about performance would drive standards up while allowing pupils to find their strengths and leave behind their weaknesses.
Soon, new academies, foundations and specialist schools were cropping up everywhere, usually backed by additional funding from local businesses that realised it was an investment in their future workforces. Some were beacons for sporting excellence, some for music or the arts, and others for vocational skills or the sciences. Some were just plain ordinary schools but families would move to different cities just to get their kids into the right school within the state system. And it paid off. But not in Scotland.
You see it never happened in Scotland. Thanks to devolution – which was designed to stop Thatcherism – the Scottish Labour Party, which for much of the time was the last repository of Old Labour, completely rejected the New Labour “no ideology is our ideology” reforms. The strongest trade union in Scotland was never the miners or the train drivers, it has always been the Educational Institute of Scotland, the teachers’ union – and it is one of the most conservative forces in the country.
Instead of deregulating the delivery of schools so that like Denmark, Sweden or the Netherlands they could be established and managed by local communities, the Labour/Lib Dem coalition gave teachers a huge pay rise and then did nothing. Worse still, it then began to unravel previous reforms that had given parents a larger say and started to restrict information that would show education was getting worse.
When in 2007 the SNP came to power there was hope that at long last “Scotland’s Party”, as it likes to think of itself, would take on the vested interests and deliver reform of our schools – but instead the relative decline has been maintained and in some instances accelerated.
Austerity cannot be blamed. While teacher numbers have increased by 12,000 in England since 2007, they have fallen in Scotland by 4276 – going down every year since the SNP came to power. Tory leader Ruth Davidson has challenged Nicola Sturgeon to change the SNP approach but that’s as likely as Alex Salmond retiring from politics.
Research by ThinkScotland shows that during the devolution years spending on education increased by 32 per cent in real terms and is five per cent higher per Scottish pupil than the rest of the UK – and yet we have poorer outcomes. The Scottish Government’s 2011 numeracy study found that 35 per cent of pupils in their second year of secondary school performed below the minimum level expected, with the overall performance declining since then.
Devolution has failed Scotland’s children because it has strengthened the hand of the education establishment that wants to resist change.
I don’t believe our teachers are worse or our pupils less able – I think we have schools that are resistant to innovation because they are controlled from the centre. For the sake of our children we need change and that’s far more important than another referendum – it’s time our Scottish Government woke up to its responsibilities instead of appealing to its own narrow self-interest and massaging its ego.
New Labour is gone now, and in the past it must remain. But when it comes to using its old slogan – which remains as vital as ever before – we should spell it education, educashun, edukshun, so that our neglectful politicians might just begin to understand the problem and start to address it.