That Scottish education faces significant and systemic challenges is, by now, an uncontroversial proposition. Literacy rates seem to be declining, schools across the country are unable to fill teaching posts and the Curriculum for Excellence elephant still stands stubbornly in the middle of the room.
Underlying many of these issues, however, is the perception that progress is being blocked by the increasing politicisation of our education system. It is an accusation often levelled at both politicians and the press but, as ever, some nuance is required.
The Scottish government spends around £4.9 billion a year on education. It’s nothing like as much money as we should be spending but it’s not exactly spare change, either. Given that different political perspectives lead to different views on how that money should be spent – and that political calculations have an impact on the decisions that are made – it is no surprise that a significant amount of political time is expended debating education policy.
It’s probably also worth remembering that in Scotland, even with an increasingly powerful Parliament, the government is not in control of all policy areas.
Without portfolios such as defence of foreign affairs to attract attention – and considering that educating a nation’s children is about the most important responsibility of any government – the particular focus on schools, colleges and universities in Scottish political debate is probably inevitable, especially when a government makes the sorts of mistakes that the SNP has in recent years.
Opposition parties, as the name suggests, have a duty to oppose. That doesn’t mean shouting down everything and anything proposed by those in charge, but it does mean that they must challenge the government’s record and hold them to account.
Sometimes, of course, opposition parties get it badly wrong. Back in May, Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson attacked the government on the basis that “one in five children leave school functionally illiterate”, an assertion which was entirely incorrect.
The Ferret Fact Service – an impartial fact-checker – declared Davidson’s claim to be false, stating that the “statistics she is referencing do not relate directly to primary school leavers – and she is using an inaccurate definition of the term, not recognised by official indicators of literacy in Scotland” (see bit.ly/LitCheck).
‘Politicisation of education’
The kindest interpretation of this debacle is also the most entertaining: that the Conservatives were unable to properly read a literacy report. The alternative is that they knew that their claim was dodgy but went ahead with it anyway, knowing that it was guaranteed to generate plenty of coverage in the press. Either way, Scotland’s teachers and young people found themselves in the middle of yet another political firestorm.
But the government isn’t exempt from accusations of the politicisation of education – indeed, spend some time trying to get a straight answer from them on any number of issues, and it quickly becomes clear that those in charge are as guilty as anyone else.
Take, for example, the initial report of the much-vaunted International Council of Education Advisers: not only did the government attempt – in vain – to sneak this document out without anyone noticing, but also we now know that publication was delayed for months because of decidedly flimsy pretences. As a result of this, the fact that the government’s experts had criticised a key plank of its own policy platform – which has also been attacked for being overtly political – was not discovered until after the policy had been announced.
Other examples include the ongoing refusal to release details of Prince Charles’ lobbying on behalf of Teach First, or the politically-motivated decision to scrap the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy.
None of this has been helped by first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s hubris in demanding that we judge her on her record in education, or the perception that there is always money for headlines – £250,000 to tender for new routes into teaching, £20,000 a year bursaries for a handful of Stem career changers, or £3 million a year for standardised testing – but never any cash to do what teachers have said again and again is needed: a pay rise, lower workload, and reduced class-contact time.
But there is another – extremely serious – factor at play here: the damage that has been done by years of brutal cuts across the Scottish media landscape.
It’s a scenario that teachers will recognise. As staffing levels drop, the capacity to go beyond the bare minimum is reduced, with remaining staff expected to do more with less. For journalists, this leaves little space for detailed investigative work, meaning that reporting inevitably becomes much more “back and forth” – “she said, he said” in nature.
PR staff – whether they work for political parties, lobbying organisations or edu-businesses – are only too aware of the extraordinary pressure that journalists are under and that a well-timed press release has a chance of generating at least some coverage in national media.
One of the most damaging manifestations of this problem is a phenomenon known as “churnalism”, a phrase coined a decade ago to describe the recycling of press releases and news stories by various media outlets. In this way, the impact of relatively shallow stories can be magnified, with the resulting furore generating lots of heat but little, if any, light.
It’s clear that the politicisation is education is, like most other things, a complex problem with no easy solution – but that is of little comfort to teachers caught in the crossfire.
Perhaps the cycle cannot be halted. Perhaps we’ve simply slipped too far down the slope of short-term thinking and desperate, headline-grabbing gimmicks. I hope not, because if so it’s difficult to see how Scottish education can ever again benefit from the sort of careful, long-term, professional-led approach it so desperately needs.
James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former secondary teacher