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Education mustn't be a political punching bag

Scottish education is about to be picked over in a way that hasn't happened in a long time: it is odds-on to be the central battleground in the run-up to the Holyrood elections in May.

The 2000 exams debacle has been followed by a period of relative stability in education, with the 2001 McCrone Agreement promising to usher in an age where teachers' expertise would command hitherto unknown levels of respect and financial reward. Helpfully, that coincided with an era of economic prosperity and things ticked over fairly nicely.

The financial crisis of 2008 was reported as a global cataclysm but the ripple effects have yet to fully reach Scottish schools, with the worst local authority cuts still to come. And education largely took a back seat during the long independence referendum campaign, given that it was already a devolved matter.

Now, however, it is under increasingly intense scrutiny. There is a greater appetite in the mainstream media for education stories: partly as a reflection of the financial strain that is forcing councils to consider previously unthinkable cuts; partly as an inevitable consequence of an SNP government that has an eight-year track record to defend.

But the big gear change occurred after Nicola Sturgeon became first minister last November. Her predecessor Alex Salmond made infrequent pronouncements on education, leaving then education secretary Michael Russell to get on with the job. Sturgeon's hands-on approach is in stark contrast to this. Earlier this month she unequivocally stated that her record in office should be judged by whether Scotland eliminated the attainment gap - a bold move given that poverty has blighted many pupils' chances of succeeding at school for decades.

Scottish Labour's new leader Kezia Dugdale has also made it her personal mission to improve education, and often focuses on issues such as college places and class sizes when crossing swords with Sturgeon in Parliament. In her first big speech as leader last week, she explained how her socialist principles were driven by educational injustice (see pages 12-13).

Constitutional issues aside, Sturgeon and Dugdale have a lot in common: both grew up without privilege, both proclaim social justice as their raison d'tre and both have put education at the centre of their political identity. But their frequently ill-tempered exchanges on the issue tend to generate more heat than light.

Before the modern Scottish Parliament first convened in 1999 there was much talk about a fundamental departure from Westminster's bear-pit politics. Holyrood would be defined by collaboration and measured debate rather than vitriolic point-scoring - a prophecy that feels largely unfulfilled.

Let's hope that this new spotlight on education is powered by a genuine effort to improve what happens in schools, rather than political enmity with the sole purpose of levering a party into power.

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