Nothing better illustrates the ever widening gulf in political culture between Scotland and England right now than education. The reintroduction of grammar schools in England is likely to dominate domestic UK politics (and therefore 6 O’clock News bulletins) for much of the next five years if Theresa May gets her way. The Prime Minister intends, not only to preserve the existing grammars, but turn a large proportion of English comprehensives into selective schools, restoring a version of the hated 11 plus, and condemning the majority of children, mainly working class, to second class education.
In Scotland, education is also top of the domestic political agenda, but there is no talk of restoring this kind of selection. Not even the Conservatives dare to mention grammars north of the border. The comprehensive system, for all its faults, is rightly regarded by most Scots as the best way to promote educational achievement for the many rather than the few. This communitarian ethos partly explains why private education is much less widespread here than in England.
Of course, there is still endemic underachievement among children of the less well off in Scotland, just as there is in England. There is also selection by house price as middle class parents pay higher premiums in order to to get their children into the best state schools. These are problems that need to be addressed. But the answer is not to restore a divisive educational system that excludes the vast majority, entrenches underachievement and does not even promote social mobility according to authorities like the Chief Inspector of Schools in England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has condemned Mrs May’s choice arguments as “tosh”.
The fact that grammars aren’t on the agenda of the Scottish government should not be taken as a sign that it is complacent about the state of Scottish education. Far from it: the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has put closing the educational attainment gap at the very centre of the Scottish government’s programme. Indeed, she has said that she wants her administration to be judged on her success in improving the educational standards of poorer families. “We must not tolerate a situation” she said unveiling her programme for government last week, “where some children from deprived areas do less well than those from more affluent areas”.
And she means it. By putting her strongest minister, John Swinney, in charge of education the FM has served notice on the educational establishment, in local authorities and the teaching profession, that the government is serious. Ms Sturgeon may be a Scottish nationalists, but she is not simply blaming the shortcomings of Scottish education on “Westminster misrule” and claiming that Scotland has to wait for independence before education can be improved. She has given a blunt warning to Scotland’s universities, especially the so-called “ancients”, that they must find ways of increasing the numbers of less well off students even if this means discriminating against middle class applicants.
Now, there is a common view among the Scottish commentariat that Nicola Sturgeon has lost her radical edge and that the Scottish government is becoming more centrist, more right wing even. This has almost become an article of faith amongst some, to such an extent that if you point to anything positive about the Scottish government you’re liable to be accused of being an SNP apologist. But we need to give credit where it is due. Nicola Sturgeon has offered more than mere platitudes about improving the living standards and educational prospects of the least advantaged families.
She knows that closing the attainment gap is almost impossible if broader social inequalities are not addressed also. Educational underachievement begins not at secondary, not at primary but at nursery level, which is why the Scottish government is doubling the amount of free care for three and four year olds. The baby box of clothing, bedding and suchlike has been ridiculed, perhaps rightly, as tokenism – but it is a sign that the government recognises the need to ensure that all children get the best start in life.
The First Minister described last week’s Child Poverty Bill “as arguably the most important piece of legislation” in the Scottish government’s programme. It is. Scotland will become the only part of the UK with statutory income targets on child poverty. Of course, this promise has to be honoured, and we have had poverty targets in Scotland before. Remember Labour.minister Wendy Alexander’s promise in 1999 to “abolish child poverty”. But at least the stated commitment is there, and voters are being invited to judge the results.
This commitment to social equity betrays the influence of the Scottish government’s independent adviser on poverty and inequality, Naomi Eisenstadt. She is one of Britain’s leading authorities on early learning, and launched the UK Sure Start programme in 1999. If the Scottish government doesn’t deliver, she will be the first to raise the alarm. The Child Poverty Bill is backed up by the Scottish government’s Social Security Bill which will abolish the bedroom tax, increase carers allowance and help combat the demonisation of benefit claimants.
These are objectives which we should surely all support at a time when the UK government is obsessed with Brexit, halting immigration, cutting welfare and introducing grammar schools. Not in our name. Applauding the fact that the Scottish government is putting the welfare of the less well off at the heart of its legislative programme does not mean that we have succumbed to nationalist propaganda. It is not the SNP alone who are responsible for these social issues being high on the agenda – the Scottish government is only responding to the social democratic ethos of Scottish civil society .
This term “civil society” has become a cliché and is sometimes dismissed as a synonym for the outspoken, Yes supporters on social media. It is nothing of the kind. The character of Scottish civil society is tested every four years at election time, and voters here have consistently rejected neo-liberal and class-based policies for over thirty years now. In the last century, Scots voted overwhelmingly for the Labour Party until it succumbed, under Tony Blair, to policies which capitulated to the market and the ideology of so called “wealth creators” – privatisation, sale of council houses, low taxes.
Perhaps the single Blairite policy that most antagonised Scottish voters was the reintroduction and subsequent increases in university tuition fees, in violation of successive Labour election pledges not to do so. Just as there is no demand in Scotland for £9,000 tuition fees, nor is there any call for grammar schools.
Of course, there are criticisms to be made of the Scottish governments’ priorities. It has a tin ear for civil liberties, for one thing, which is why the Named Person scheme, as originally planned, fell foul of the Supreme Court. Environmentalists rightly object to the halving of Air Passenger Duty. However, we must put these things in perspective. The Scottish government has already shown its determination to pursue a very different set of political priorities in Scotland irrespective of independence. Ms Sturgeon is not saying: we must wait until Scotland is free before challenging inequality. We start right here. Whether you’re a nationalist or a unionist, that is surely something to celebrate.
Sunday Herald 11/9/16