An appeal to any visiting aliens from Mars: if for some reason you’d like to find out what’s happening in education around these parts, don’t bother teleporting to the chamber of the Scottish Parliament.
There, you’ll encounter a festival of grandstanding, where facts trail forlornly behind rhetoric like a pedigree dog with an abusive owner. On one side are the naysayers, who revel in painting a picture of an education system falling apart, of downtrodden schools where diminishing bands of bedraggled teachers despair at befuddled pupils who think Pythagoras is an elusive Pokémon and grammar an elderly matriarch in the Kardashian family.
On the other are the Pollyannas, who blithely talk about eliminating the attainment gap between rich and poor, as if it were as simple as fixing a wobbly table leg. We needn’t worry about shrinking budgets and diminishing ranks of staff because they keep saying education is their “defining mission” with the boundless optimism of a One Direction fan who thinks she’ll marry Harry Styles if she only wishes hard enough.
The truth, as ever when politicians clash, is somewhere between their competing versions of reality. But in the heat of parliamentary battle, snidey put-downs are valued more than facts and success is measured by whether a context-free clip of your best soundbite gets traction on Facebook.
It’s no wonder people are sceptical about politicians if all they ever see is a few lowlights of first minister’s questions cobbled together for the evening news. Yet politicians aren’t always like this. In the more intimate surroundings of the Education and Skills Committee, at its best, there’s a different tenor: reasoned debate, robust but respectful exchanges and forensic examination of the facts. Most of the time, though, the audience for such meetings comprises a handful of hacks and civil servants. Sadly, part of the reason that parliamentary committees are more edifying is that hardly anybody is watching.
Our series of interviews with the education spokespersons for the five parties at Holyrood (see the latest, with the Scottish Greens’ Ross Greer, in this issue) serves as another reminder that our elected representatives are more thoughtful people than you would think from all the Parliamentary Punch and Judy. They’ve had other careers, interesting life stories and – shock, horror – occasionally admit that not everything is right/wrong with Scottish education.
Informed scepticism about politicians’ motives is essential, but outright cynicism is dangerous. People who throw their hands up and moan “they’re all as bad as each other” are giving themselves an excuse for not bothering to engage with politics. And with next month’s council elections fast approaching, a huge irony of politics hoves into view once again: these elections, where local services are shaped, are the ones that have the most direct effect on people’s lives. Yet, as ever, turnout is likely to be pitiful.
These are the first council elections in which 16- and 17-year-olds, many of them at school or college, will be able to vote. It would be irresponsible for older people to offload their cynicism onto those about to experience, for the first time, the bracing sensation of exercising a basic democratic right.
The myth that all politicians are the same is partly responsible for the rise of politicians who style themselves as different in ways that make many of us uncomfortable: Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen et al. The last of those, of course, is about to compete in another potentially game-changing election.
Politicians often don’t help themselves – which will no doubt be proven time and again in the run-up to June’s Westminster election – but that doesn’t give the rest of us an excuse to switch off from politics.