Ian Murray: John Swinney can't ride roughshod over the will of parliament
I'm writing my column this month from China as I'm on a fact-finding delegation with the Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee. We are conducting an in-depth report on the UK's relationship with China and their role in the world.
One of the many aspects of Chinese life that has impressed me is their passion for education and particularly primary education. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that the Scottish education system used to be the envy of the world.
Devolved since the foundation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, education is a vital public service that is the largest investment we can make in the future of our country. But today’s generation of youngsters is being let down by the SNP Scottish Government.
I’m fortunate to represent a constituency with some of the best schools, teachers and active parent councils in the country. However, they urgently need better policies and support from the Scottish Government.
A major international study of pupil performance, known as PISA, found that Scotland’s schools were recording their worst ever performance in maths, reading, and science. But, sadly, it appears that SNP Education Secretary John Swinney does not want to listen to teachers, parents, and education trades unions on the best way forward for our education system.
It is supposed to be the First Minster’s “top priority”, yet fresh from the embarrassing collapse of the SNPs “flagship” Education Bill, ministers are now in a direct confrontation with both teachers and parliament on their policy of standardised testing.
Last week, Mr Swinney issued a thinly-veiled threat to ignore the will of the Scottish Parliament if democratically-elected MSPs were to vote to suspend the standardised testing of Primary 1 pupils. It is not within the gift of Nationalist ministers to erode the role of parliament in our democratic system, and given SNP MPs have been crying foul at Westminster for years about the Conservative government ignoring parliamentary votes, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to be accused of being hypocrites. If Mr Swinney does indeed ignore parliament’s wishes it would set a dangerous precedent where SNP ministers can issue edicts to every school in the land with no democratic check on their power.
Teachers across the country are repeatedly telling Mr Swinney that these tests are unwanted – yet he chooses not to listen. Is this yet another example of ignoring experts?
These tests are costing the taxpayer £4.6m-a-year yet no-one outside the SNP government believes they have any educational value. It appears that he wants to manufacture his own accountability. The beleaguered Education Secretary has now stooped to even getting his civil servants to demonstrate the tests to MSPs in a bid to prove their worth, despite the warnings from the teaching profession.
Yesterday’s debate in Holyrood gave Mr Swinney one last opportunity to take a step back and reflect. If he chooses to ignore that he chooses to put political ideology before our most important commodity – the education of future generations.
And while I am on the theme of education, I was really disappointed that promises given to parents and pupils of Liberton High School to do important building works over the summer holidays were delayed.
Every other high school in the Edinburgh South cluster has been replaced or rebuilt and Liberton High deserves more than a few delayed repairs. Maybe the Scottish Government could use some of its £400m underspend from this year and give the money for a new Liberton High? That would deliver on the promise, made to the local community, of a new school. Come on, do the decent thing.
Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South