Casualties of war

23rd January 2015 at 00:00

Despite significant curriculum changes over the past decade, Scottish education has benefited from a broad political consensus about its purpose and nature. In Scotland, education is seen as a societal benefit, a community of interests and opportunities, and an instrument of the "common weal".

The insidious approaches of the Global Education Reform Movement have been repelled at every turn, whereas in England the damage wreaked by former education minister Michael Gove's enthusiastic embracing of this US-led agenda - around target-setting, league tables, name-and-shame inspections and the privatisation agenda - is plain to see. Local authorities have been sidelined, comprehensive education undermined and professional standards put under attack.

But might Scottish education be facing a similarly fractious future, with consensus cast aside for political point-scoring? A host of new players have entered the scene and it is clear from early sparring that education could become a major battleground. In terms of policy priorities and budgeting, that is as it should be - education is a major service and one in which voters have a particular interest. The concern for teachers, however, is that political debate can often morph into attacking, even undermining, the service being delivered in increasingly difficult circumstances.

Recent discussion about the impact of poverty on educational attainment is a prime example. Angela Constance, the new education secretary, has written publicly about the importance of tackling this issue; Jim Murphy, Labour's new Scottish leader, made similar comments; and Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has sought to gain political capital from the same theme. The evident commitment to this agenda from politicians is welcome, but it shouldn't be a competition about who cares the most.

The EIS teaching union has been running a campaign to highlight the impact of poverty on educational achievement (see pages 18-20). We know that schools can and do make a difference to individuals. We know that specific projects such as nurture classes have an impact. We also know that assigned funding, like the School Improvement Partnership Programme, leads to improvements.

But we recognise that schools alone cannot overcome the consequences of poverty - and there is a bitter irony in politicians advocating action on inequality even as they implement benefit cuts. Blaming others may be a traditional playground response but it's no substitute for sober political discourse.

Scotland's education system clearly isn't perfect. It is, however, a good and effective system founded on agreed principles. I know from speaking with teacher trade unionists in other countries that it is admired around the globe - not least by our nearest neighbour. And at its heart is a common purpose that we would do well to preserve.

Larry Flanagan is general secretary of the EIS teaching union

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