“The polls and the pundits say this election is in the bag,” said Nicola Sturgeon as she launched the SNP’s manifesto last week.
Indeed, there is a strong feeling that the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary election is a boring one, with an SNP win a foregone conclusion.
However, teachers and schools should have found this election anything but dull.
Since Nicola Sturgeon replaced Alex Salmond as leader of the SNP, education policy has had a high profile in Scotland. Sturgeon quickly staked her personal reputation on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils. And, in recent months, education has been the major battleground for the political parties during this campaign.
One consequence of Sturgeon’s focus on what happens in Scottish classrooms is that the education system could be about to undergo its biggest overhaul in generations: a key plank of the SNP manifesto is its plans to loosen the tight grip that councils have on schools.
Not all children are the same, says the manifesto, so our education system should not follow a one-size-fits-all model. It talks about recognising parents and teachers as “key decision makers” and stresses that the party wants to “empower local schools” (see pages 6-7).
Scotland could also be set to bear witness to another seismic shift in the political sphere. Before 2014’s independence referendum, it was inconceivable that Labour could fall out of favour with the electorate to the extent that the title of official opposition was beyond their reach. But some pollsters say that the race for second place is too close to call and the Scottish Conservatives could triumph.
The Conservatives are doing their best to sell Scots the message that they will become the official opposition. However, one look at their manifestos and their statements in recent months suggests that they are unlikely to challenge the SNP when it comes to education.
Spot the difference
They are pro-testing, like the SNP. They support the idea of changing the role of local government in education, and, also like the SNP, are keen to explore a wider range of routes into teaching.
The Conservatives say they would introduce Teach First to Scotland – a controversial move as it involves parachuting untrained graduates straight into schools with only a few weeks’ prior training. The SNP is more coy – their manifesto talks about developing “new routes into teaching to help attract the brightest and best graduates”. But the two parties echo each other with their basic thrust.
The Tories also side with the SNP in their rejection of the Labour and Liberal Democrat plan to use new tax-raising powers to prevent more cuts to education services.
However, Ruth Davidson’s party have been quick to latch on to the SNP’s pledge to end Scotland’s one-size-fits-all education system and have said that they will ensure a future SNP administration keeps its promise.
Ms Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, says: “We have been calling for headteachers to get more control and for school management to be devolved – and it is good to see the SNP now moving on that too.
“There will be resistance to these proposals however – and the history of this SNP government is that they prefer to kick a challenge into the long grass rather than tackle it head on. As a strong opposition, we will not allow them to do that. We will hold them to their words and insist that progress is made to make our schools world class once more.”
However, John Curtice, renowned pollster from the University of Strathclyde, points out that effective opposition is not just about policy, it’s about an ability to effectively critique what the government is doing. “That will come down to the quality of the education spokespeople. For Labour, that will very much depend on who survives the election”, he says.
But currently, to those not permanently plugged into the education debate, it might not be clear who the Labour education spokesperson is. In August, Iain Gray was crowned its “opportunity spokesperson” – a new title covering schools, skills, childcare and sport.
But, because of education’s prominence, the electorate have heard far more on the issues from Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who has pledged to “put education at the heart of everything” she does. She is unlikely to get under the opposition’s skin at this stage, though. For a start, the electorate is a little hazy on the full extent of Labour’s plans for education – or anything else – due to the late publication of the party’s manifesto. It was published this Wednesday, after TESS went to press, just eight days before the election.
Jumping on the bandwagon
Labour and the other parties at Holyrood will continue to try to halt the march of the nationalists. Sturgeon made the attainment gap her priority and, since then, all the other parties have jumped on the bandwagon. Now they all argue that they are the ones with the solution to one of education’s most intractable problems.
The answer, according to Sturgeon, will lie in the combination of the National Improvement Framework – which will allow the attainment gap to be measured – and her “Scottish Attainment Fund”, in which the SNP has said that it will invest £750 million over the course of the next Parliament.
However, the approach has been criticised for failing to reach large numbers of primaries and virtually excluding secondaries. The Lib Dems want to solve this with the introduction of England’s pupil premium in Scotland, making £1,400 available to schools for every primary child from a poorer background, and £900 for secondary.
Labour leader Dugdale’s plans also involve the money following the child. School leaders should receive £1,000 for every pupil from a deprived background, she argues, with the scheme paid for by raising the top rate of tax to 50p for those earning more than £150,000.
Dugdale says: “We want to give the spending powers to headteachers. Challenges in classrooms are different across the country; in fact, they are different across the same city. That’s why these decisions should be taken by heads rather than by an SNP minister in Edinburgh.”
FE and early years support
Another major battleground is FE: opposition parties say that the SNP has treated the sector like a “second-class service” by cutting college budgets and places. The Lib Dems, for example, say that they will invest money from its Penny for Education scheme to reverse the cuts to part-time places for older learners made by the SNP.
The Conservatives have vowed to put pressure on the SNP to increase spending, while the SNP themselves have committed to maintain at least 116,000 full-time equivalent college places each year.
At the other end of the education scale, early years has become an extra opportunity for some voter-pleasing pledges. The SNP have promised to almost double free nursery hours for vulnerable two-, three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours per week by 2021.
The Lib Dems say that the offer should be expanded to include all two-year-olds; the Conservatives argue the focus should be on vulnerable one- and two-year-olds, not three- and four-year-olds. The Greens, meanwhile, say that quality and flexibility are most important, advocating a more modest rise in free hours to 20 per week.
Any new funding should be targeted at families with very young children who face the highest childcare costs, and those living in poverty, said the Commission for Childcare Reform, which reported last year and consulted widely with parents. Extending free nursery hours for three- and four-year-olds is the wrong focus, says the chair of the commission, Colin MacLean, a former director of financial strategy for the Scottish government.
He adds: “If local authorities are simply set the task of delivering 30 hours for three- and four-year-olds in term time, experience suggests they will do exactly that, but not take steps to ensure the 30 hours is available as part of full-time childcare provision.
“If that happens, many parents will still not be able to access affordable full-time childcare, all year round, for those children who need it.”
So how much of any of these promises will become a reality? Even when a party gains power, manifesto pledges frequently fall by the wayside after the election – think of the SNP promise to give every child access to a nursery teacher, or its plans to reduce class sizes to 18 in early primary.
In reality, the number of nursery teachers has plummeted in recent years and just 12 per cent of P1 to 3 pupils are in classes of 18 or less, according to the latest statistics.
Two things are certain, however. The SNP will win this election and, because Sturgeon has made closing the gap the commitment she wants to be judged on, education is going to remain in the spotlight for years to come.
More change is coming: schools and teachers should brace themselves.
Education: The key policies
Extend free nursery hours to a higher proportion of disadvantaged one- and two-year-olds, before three- and four-year-olds.
Give schools the ability to operate outside of local authority control.
Introduce Teach First and postgraduate teaching bursary, which would be linked to a teacher working in a Scottish state school.
More counselling available in secondary schools.
Re-establish an independent inspectorate outwith Education Scotland.
The repeal of Named Persons.
Re-enter Scotland into all the main international education comparison tests.
More focused training for teachers in numeracy and literacy teaching.
A 1p increase in income tax, raising £505m in 2017/18 and £520m the year after. To be invested in reversing cuts and a Scottish pupil premium.
Transform P1 into a more informal learning environment, effectively increasing the school starting age to 6.
Scrap plans for standardised testing in primary and early secondary.
Double the funding to treat children and young people with mental health problems.
Extend free childcare entitlement to all two-year-olds.
Extend universities’ massive open online courses so that they can be used by schools.
Improve supply teachers’ terms and conditions.
Almost double the number of hours of free nursery to 30 hours a week by 2021 for vulnerable two-year-olds and all three- and four-year-olds.
Provide free meals to all two-, three- and four-year-olds who benefit from increased nursery.
Maintain teacher numbers.
Extend responsibilities that currently sit solely with local authorities to schools and allocate more resources directly to headteachers.
Offer help to every school to become a daily-mile school.
More focussed and frequent school inspection.
Every child in early education in the most deprived communities to have access to an additional teacher or childcare graduate by 2018.
4,000 more teachers to ease workload pressure on existing staff and decrease class sizes.
Deliver meaningful access to a qualified teacher in every nursery and 20 hours’ free nursery education a week.
Protect ASN posts to help close attainment gap.
Oppose standardised testing.
Transferable digital skills to be taught in all schools.
Free school meals for all primary pupils.
Support for learning should be a promoted post to make it more attractive to the best teachers.
Protect the education budget in real terms.
A Fair Start Fund paid for by a 50p top rate of tax on those earning more than £150,000 a year to invest in schools.
Establish a nationwide initiative to introduce first-class education in information technology and computer coding in our schools.
Introduce a Scottish Graduation Certificate involving vocational courses, work experience and traditional exams for pupils with fewer traditional qualifications.
Primary teachers to be taught basic coding.
Funding for a breakfast club in every primary school and an after-school sports revolution for every secondary school.