John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, in an indictment of politicians and hyperbole, nailed it with this subtle and astute lyric from 1978: they “go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong!”
If you’re someone with a passing interest in education who would like to get a sense of what’s going on in schools, the Scottish Parliament’s chamber is not the best place to start. Here, hyperbole rules the roost over level-headed, informative debate. Many parliamentary exchanges provide about as much insight into Scottish education as Peppa Pig does into quantum mechanics.
The nadir in recent months was the debate leading up to last month’s vote on the P1 Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs). I was covering the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow so kept tabs on proceedings in Edinburgh through a live stream, half-listening as I wrote and edited copy. At times, it was like trying to thread a needle in the midst of a roomful of toddlers high on super-size cups of pick ’n’ mix.
You had irate SNP MSPs denouncing opponents’ objections to the SNSAs as politically motivated (fair enough, but there’s no shortage of opposition from non-politicians, too), with the vitriol at a level to suggest that the government was particularly rattled about this issue.
The SNP’s inability to accept that there may be some reasonable objections to SNSAs led to some crass utterances, and one in particular jolted me into looking up from my typing: one MSP, responding to the suggestion that some four- and five-year-olds might be upset by the assessments, opined that “children have always cried at school”.
On the opposition side, there was shrill desperation at times, as MSPs jostled for the chance to land a square blow on the collective jaw of an embattled Scottish government; the bug-eyed contempt was not limited to the party in power. And it was hard to accept that the opposition voiced by the Conservatives was a matter of principle, given their longstanding support of standardised national assessments at all levels before a grassroots campaign against the SNSAs started to gain traction this year.
As with so many political spats over education, you were left wondering if any of the unedifying spectacle was driven by what’s in the best long-term interests of the country’s children.
If you’re old enough, like me, to remember the 1997 devolution campaign, you may have a dim memory of promises that the Scottish Parliament would provide more dignified spectacles than Westminster bunfights such as Prime Minister’s Questions. I remember sitting in St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen for a scholarly debate before referendum day, where the great writers William McIlvanney and Neal Ascherson lent their considerable gravitas to the idea that post-devolution Scotland would do politics differently.
Like Westminster, however, at Holyrood you’re only likely to find a measured appraisal of educational issues in the oft-ignored proceedings of the committee rooms. In the chamber, the bile, pompous grandstanding and braying derision is no different from that in the House of Commons.
Overblown rhetoric and party-political point-scoring are problems whatever subject is getting a buffeting, but they feel particularly incongruous in education. Every day, you can go on to the Scottish Parliament website and see the names of schools touring the building that day. You wonder what they must make of the raw animosity on show.
Perhaps they question why our elected members are contravening the values of every school in the land. Perhaps they feel let down by all this tribalistic nonsense. Perhaps they think politicians would make as much sense if they quiffed their hair, jumped atop a convertible and yelped: “Shoo-bop sha wadda wadda, yippity boom de boom.”
Henry Hepburn is the Tes Scotland news editor. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn