We have many political issues of our own to contend with in Scotland, but we can at least console ourselves that our children’s future is not (currently) being dictated by a “demented Dalek on speed” who is on a mission to “exterminate” education!
Sounds harsh, but that’s how the National Union of Teachers in England described the UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, last week. It may indeed be a reasonable assessment of the man, given that he has previously espoused the abolition of school holidays and the imposition of an 8-day school week! Clearly I have paraphrased those two particular ambitions but, in any event, I am confident we should remain grateful that Michael Gove has no influence on education North of the border.
However, we should still be wary of those who seek to influence our political leaders as it often appears all too easy for them to be led down the path of increasingly irrational, unfounded bureaucratic nonsense. For example, only last month this newspaper reported that a Scottish ‘think tank’ had declared “children should start school at the age of four”. When these people are thinking in their tank do they ever bother to read, research or, heaven forfend, ask some experts?
Sadly, politicians often seem intent on packing kids off to school ever younger, then hot-housing them through some ‘rigorous’ Victorian throwback system in a frantic sprint to have them graduate into the world of work. Then they can work hard, pay high taxes and regenerate our economy – hurrah!
Instead of the Chinas, Japans or South Koreas so beloved of Gove and his ilk (and we have them in Scotland too) can we perhaps find inspiration in Finland? There, formal schooling begins at age seven yet they consistently achieve credible educational statistics. Of course there’s more to it than simply starting later, but allowing ‘kids to be kids’ is central to the Finnish philosophy. Who could argue with that?
In Finland, state schools are highly localised; there are no private schools. Childhood independence is promoted and most pupils will walk or cycle to school by themselves. Class sizes are small and highly-qualified, well-paid teachers are charged with treating each child as an individual. It’s not rocket science, is it?
We can be reassured by the fact that the Scottish Government appears to at least aspire to many aspects of the Finnish approach. One of the strengths of our education system, as opposed to that in the rest of the UK, is that Scotland has long enjoyed an all-graduate teaching profession. Finland takes that a stage further and insists on all teachers having Masters degrees. This is a trend in many European countries and is in complete contrast to the latest Gove-inspired fad in England of introducing unqualified teachers into the system. You couldn’t make it up, really!
So, in Scotland, we appear to be doing, or attempting to do, most of the right things, most of the time. This is something we should be proud of, but we cannot be complacent while ‘think tanks’ continue to push in the opposite direction. Perhaps, some might agree, they are what should be exterminated?
In her excellent book Blossom, What Scotland Needs To Flourish, Lesley Riddoch argues a convincing case linking the small number of Scottish local authorities to a perceived disconnect between local government and the people they are elected to serve. In contrast to other European countries Scotland is, by this measure, the least democratic country in Western Europe.
Prior to the 1930s we had 871 local councils, which were then reduced to around 400 by the Local Government Act (1929). In 1975, ‘regionalisation’ brought that down to 65 (a two-level system of regions and districts) before we finally (for now!) arrived at our current, paltry number of 32 in 1996. Each of our councils oversees, on average, over 160000 citizens. In France around 37000 councils oversee an average of 380 citizens, Norway has 431 councils looking after just under 4500 citizens each, Germany has just over 12000 councils responsible for just under 7000 citizens each, and even England fares slightly (but not significantly) better.
This reduction in numbers has mainly been brought about under the guise of increasing efficiency. For me, this increased efficiency is probably most notable in the saving of time and personnel when counting the votes at local elections, as only 38% of us bothered our backsides last time out in 2012.
What may have slipped under a lot of peoples' radar is that we've just made exactly the same mistakes with our Further Education Colleges. We had 43, we now have 12, it's more efficient you see.
Let's think about the cost of these efficiencies. How much did we spend on redundancy payments? How much did we spend on 'rebranding', changing all the signs and letterheads and...
It's not that long ago I worked at Lauder College in Dunfermline, which only a few years ago decided that 'Carnegie' was a better 'brand', only to be scooped up as part of the new Fife College which also, incidentally, includes the old Fife College that had temporarily lost its name when merged with Glenrothes to form Adam Smith! Are you keeping up?
Further Education used to be affectionately known as FE until some branding zealots decided that 'the College Sector' had a much more professional, business-like ring to it. The Scottish Further Education Unit (SFEU) had to be renamed Scotland's Colleges to reflect this brand-new era. Last year, in keeping with this most recent reorganisation, it too had to get a new name... Colleges Scotland. See, how much better is that? No, me neither!
And what of the human cost? Hundreds if not thousands of professional people cast adrift at or approaching their peak. Efficiency?
Needless to say, the Principals who progressed into the new structure enjoyed healthy increases to their already generous salaries...
Further Education has long been regarded as 'the Cinderella Sector', oft neglected and maligned when it comes to funding, but absolutely crucial in every government policy aimed at eradicating youth unemployment or retraining older workers for the 'new' industries. Why neglected? Well, in political thinking, schools consist of pupils who have parents and grandparents who are voters - best keep them onside. Universities have always been part of the Establishment elite and make great contributions to our economy and wealth generation. And they're awfully clever chaps too!
But, FE? Brickies, plumbers, joiners, hairdressers, beauty technicians, childcare assistants and folk who were too thick to pass their exams first time round? Nah!
Scotland has much to be proud of in respect of education, as I have said in these pages before, but this latest reorganisation of our post-compulsory education provision is not one of those. We may live to regret this latest bout of efficiency savings/cultural vandalism - delete as appropriate!