Devolution is not evolution

2nd July 2010 at 01:00

The Scottish Parliament has now been running for exactly 11 years, and can we honestly say education is in better shape than before David Steel first banged his gavel? If it is healthier, is it because of, or despite, the Scottish Parliament and its MSPs?

Before leaping to answer these questions, we have to remember that devolution did not deliver a separate education system - we already had that. I can't remember the last Labour Education Secretary in the 1970s, before Thatcher's Conservatives swept to power with a majority helped by 22 Scottish Conservative MPs.

Those halcyon days that look unlikely to return gave us Alex Fletcher, Alan Stewart, John Mackay and, of course, Michael Forsyth, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and Raymond Robertson as successive education ministers. And despite what critics said at the time, their agenda was always to keep Scottish education distinctive with its own curriculum, its own exams, its own teaching standards and its own ethos.

Devolution never changed any of that: what it was meant to do was make education more accountable. The question then must be: has accountability through Parliament made a difference, for better or worse?

When Michael Forsyth introduced school boards in 1988, he was accused of trying to anglicise Scottish education and prepare individual schools for opting out. Having worked for him at the time, I knew this to be a gross exaggeration - it was about giving parents a real say in their school (not in education itself).

By the time the Scottish Parliament got its hands on school boards, 97 per cent of secondary schools and 88 per cent of primary schools had them. They had their faults, but they were an improvement on what went before (nothing!) and there was not much that investing in better training for board members would not have put right. With school boards abolished, accountability was reduced, not enhanced.

Of course, it was during the early years of devolution that the McCrone teachers' deal was struck, but there was nothing in that agreement that the old Scottish Office could not have delivered.

There was also the catastrophic failure of the Scottish Qualifications Authority in delivering exam results during August 2000. But, for all the huffing and puffing of the Parliament's education committee, did its report make any difference to the injustice that many pupils suffered? It may have provided some catharsis in having the soon-to-resign SQA chief executive Ron Tuck grilled in front of the committee, but did it correct a single exam result?

Again, I doubt there was any action taken then that the Scottish Office could not have taken. And while the education committee was happy to castigate the SQA and inspectorate, it balked at condemning the inaction of Sam Galbraith (pictured with Tuck), the Education Minister who went on holiday despite there being signs that the introduction of Higher Still was going to bring the exam system crashing down. Holding civil servants and officials to account was one thing, but politicians? Forget it.

Another aspect of accountability glossed over by the Parliament's admirers is, of course, that so much affecting Scottish education is decided by local authorities - and they are expressly not accountable to the Parliament. This approach has to be changed, for instance by calling each authority to go before the education committee after it has had an inspection.

Has devolution made a positive difference? I remain to be convinced; maybe the best is yet to come?

Brian Monteith used to be an MSP but he's all right now.

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