The other side of the education story

`Binary' political debate is too simplistic, says Kezia Dugdale

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Labour's education spokeswoman Kezia Dugdale has denied that former prime minister Gordon Brown questioned whether education should remain devolved to Scotland.

Mr Brown was reported to have cited "astonishing new surveys" in a recent speech at the University of Edinburgh, which showed that more than half of 14- to 17-year-olds in Scotland wanted a UK-wide education system with common exams and qualifications.

In an interview with TESS, however, Ms Dugdale said this was "absolutely not" a threat to Scotland's distinct education system. She added that campaigning around the Scottish independence referendum "forces every topic to be a binary discussion, for and against something", and argued that Mr Brown's comments were "much more subtle".

"Gordon Brown is the first to say how proud he is of the Scottish education system," she said. "I think it works for some people to try and misinterpret what he said in the context of the independence referendum."

Ms Dugdale explained that Mr Brown had been discussing how Scottish teenagers wanted internationally recognised qualifications so they could "take their skills, and what they learn in schools, around the globe".

She disputed the argument made by education secretary Michael Russell in an interview with TESS last week that only with independence, and therefore full powers over taxation and welfare, could Scotland fully address the poverty gap in educational attainment.

Ms Dugdale said she was "no diehard unionist" and would have voted for independence if she believed it would fix the problem. Labour had used the Scottish Parliament's powers to reduce child poverty significantly while in government, she said. Closing the attainment gap had "absolutely nothing to do with the constitution".

Although the government's 2011 child poverty strategy had been praised by anti-poverty campaigners, Ms Dugdale said she did not think "it's about who has powers where; it's about the political will to act, and there hasn't been any - there hasn't been a relentless focus from this government to tackle child poverty."

Ms Dugdale said she was "really relaxed" about signs that it was becoming the norm for pupils to take six National qualifications, but added that the innovation promised by Curriculum for Excellence was stalling in areas such as interdisciplinary learning because teachers were under too much pressure. "They haven't got the freedom to sit back and think differently about how they teach what they teach," she said.

Last week Mr Russell insisted that there was no significant trend of pupils being pushed to do National 5s because parents disliked National 4s, but Ms Dugdale said she had heard evidence to the contrary: "I thought that was a disgrace, to brush that off so lightly."

The Labour MSP also criticised Mr Russell's prediction that the introduction of new Highers would be smoother than that of Nationals. "That's very cavalier, because it doesn't take into account the knock-on effect of how stressed teachers are from last year's experience," she said.

Although she believed that the new Highers had been "rushed", Ms Dugdale said it was "absolutely the right thing" that schools and local authorities had now been allowed to decide whether to press on or stick with old Highers this year.

She admitted a tactical misstep earlier this year, after she faced flak from the government for opposing free meals for all P1-3s. Ms Dugdale insisted that she did not regret her party's alternative proposal to target funds at vulnerable two-year-olds, but said her "big mistake" had been attempting a "pragmatic debate" during the independence referendum. "It just goes to show you can't do that in constitutional politics," she said.

Ms Dugdale hit back at Mr Russell for accusing her of "misinformation" over her claim that there had been a fall of 10 million teaching hours in further education colleges, saying that the figures came from Colleges Scotland.

She disputed, too, his assertion that all students were thriving in the reformed sector; courses for part-time female students had been hit badly and the government was "shutting the door on women's ability to access learning", Ms Dugdale argued.

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