Grasping the thistle
FROM MONOLOGUE TO PEOPLE'S CONVENTION
My bid for leadership of the SNP, and Nicola Sturgeon's campaign for deputy leader, is about defining the SNP we seek and importantly the Scotland we seek.
We want to establish an Education Convention for Scotland with membership drawn from teachers, parents, the Scottish Parliament, government, business, trade unions and pupils. It would draw on participation of the wider community in education - a historical feature of education in Scotland. This widely based forum would be similar to that established with such success in Ireland a generation ago. It would drive forward the education agenda ensuring delivery and action.
The Executive's Great Education Debate is in danger of deteriorating into a monologue - our vision for an independent Scotland is for a participative democracy and the education convention would be a key part of that.
Flexibility and adaptability should be two hallmarks for education policy.
The overcrowded curriculum needs flexibility nurturing confidence, creativity and core skills. Core skills of numeracy, literacy and critical thinking with capacity to challenge and the ability to learn in different ways are key for our young people to face modern life in the 21st century.
Flexibility means allowing schools to specialise, which helps success to flourish, not just in that subject, but in helping develop a successful school ethos and identity. Empowering headteachers and creative use of specialist schools in whatever subject, within the comprehensive system, would have a widespread positive impact.
Our teachers need to be trusted and their professionalism respected. They need to be given the space and time to be adaptable in how they impart knowledge and develop skills. That means an end to the restraints of national testing in whatever guise and recognition of the real problems of indiscipline.
We need buildings and teacher recruitment and workforce planning for smaller class sizes rather than stuffy small classrooms and restrictive designs which are the product of the discredited public private partnership (PPP).
Opportunity and potential for too many young people are lost in the early years. We would make early years education and childcare a priority, seeking to learn from the Scandinavian countries in particular. Providing a firm foundation of education in the very earliest years of a child's life is one of the strongest investments any country can make in its people.
The place of education in the nation is central to the modern social democratic Scotland we can build with independence.
LET TEACHERS TEACH AND PARENTS CHOOSE
Scottish education is being failed by a lack of ambition. We could, if we so desired, ensure that real choice was available within the state system.
Not just a continued support for Roman Catholic schooling and for Gaelic-medium education, but a recognition that the same ideal can be offered to other communities across Scotland where there is a substantial demand. We should also highlight the importance of rural schools and ensure that they do not come under needless threat.
The education system needs to be less bureaucratic - providing more freedom within the system and a greater ability afforded to teachers to do the teaching that is needed, rather than the form-filling and box-ticking which currently seems such a priority.
That is a development Scottish teachers would welcome. As they would a reduction in class sizes. Of course, in order to achieve that, there needs to be a real focus on training and recruitment of teachers, many of whom are taking the early retirement option rather than continue in a job which is no longer what they want to do.
Much was promised by the McCrone agreement, but the delivery of that agreement has been hampered by the inability of local councils to ensure that it is implemented properly. Problems at the probationary level continue. This means that tackling the recruitment crisis is not easy - but unless we do, we will find that efforts to improve education in Scotland will be thwarted.
And improve we must. There are still profoundly disturbing differences in attainment levels being reached by schools dependent on their socio-economic catchment area. Such differences ought not to be tolerated in modern Scotland. Clearly, tackling poverty levels will have a major effect on future education prospects - but we can't afford to write off the current generation of children trapped by circumstance of birth.
That means tackling the issue early in the education system - right at the level of pre-school education. We should be adopting an integrated approach to early years services, while recognising that children make more progress where staff are well qualified.
It also means using the education system to better the prospects of the next generation by ensuring that in school at least they are provided with balanced school meals and opportunities to develop their health and well being.
By these means, we can help repair the damage done to our education system over the years and begin to restore confidence in a public service that was once a byword for excellence.
THE BIG IDEA MUST INVOLVE THINKING SMALL
The SNP must recognise the unique strengths and weaknesses of Scotland's educational system. As Shadow Minister for Education in the last Scottish Parliament, I developed policies that did just that, working with a talented policy team and in consultation with teachers, unions, parents and young people.
That big idea must be a radical reduction in class sizes. Unfortunately Labour's attempt to reduce class sizes in the early secondary years in maths and English are faltering and its primary programme lacks ambition.
As an essential start, we must take the maximum class size in primaries 1, 2 and 3 down to 18 or below across the whole of Scotland. This would need another 3,115 teachers, at a total cost of pound;105 million a year, phased in over six years. Additional training costs would be pound;56 million over the period, and another pound;3.1 million to maintain the supply each year after that. Scotland can afford such investment.
School infrastructure must also reflect the demands of the policy.
Presently private finance initiative (PFI) projects are building and refurbishing schools that are usually unsuited even for present usage.
Worldwide research shows that smaller class sizes are a major key not just to improved education, but also to a country's improved economic performance. But along with smaller classes we need a simplified primary curriculum, based on key skills in reading, writing and maths and a secondary curriculum that combines variety and flexibility with the individual pursuit of achievement and success.
All education must seek to impart research and thinking skills as the basic building blocks.
We also need a more balanced exam system - our present exam system is over-engineered - a plan to invest in rural as well as urban schools, more vocational education and a big increase in the use of IT integrally in every classroom and subject.
We must resist the calls for more specialist schools and re-emphasise the need to have good local schools in each community, seeking to meet local need. Clarifying the decision-making roles and educational responsibilities of government, local authorities and schools themselves is therefore vital.
As a party the SNP must show that we have the ideas to move Scotland forward. To do this we have to take down the barriers to national success. I am standing in the leadership contest with that as my central theme, and with education in the vanguard of that process.