Success in politics is largely about broad brushstrokes. Getting a big message across, regardless of its practical consequences, is favoured over any sort of policy based on a level-headed analysis of what might actually work.
Donald Trump provides an extreme example of this with his outlandish promises to build a wall with Mexico or to refuse all Muslims entry to the US. He figures that by pummelling the electorate with anti-immigration rhetoric, shorn of any nuance, his maverick appeal will blow away any candidate whose policies are shaped by even a scintilla of rationality.
But politicians of all hues strive to leave behind the messy real world for a Shangri-La built on simple, rallying messages.
These might be blunt tools to bash voters’ heads with at every opportunity (“Education, education, education”) or phrases to slip into speech after speech (“long-term economic plan”) as if attempting mass hypnosis.
Sometimes, two parties hit upon the same wheeze at the same time. Take the stooshie over 25-hour teaching weeks in Scotland’s primary schools. It was Scottish Labour that first spotted an opportunity.
Various councils had mooted a 22.5-hour week for at least some pupils as a way of saving big bucks, only for each one to park the idea after a public backlash. Such is councils’ desperation to find savings, however, that Highland took only a year to revisit the idea.
Aha, thought Labour, let’s ride the mood of vehement opposition and push for an amendment to the Education Bill that would make a 25-hour week mandatory for schools.
Labour was staking a claim for the moral high ground on education – but not if the SNP had anything to do with it.
Shortly after, only days before amendments went before the Scottish Parliament’s education committee, the government lodged its own amendment seeking to enshrine 25 hours. Panic over – the big message that “We are the protectors of education” once again belonged to the SNP.
But there was anger in the normally sober setting of the education committee. Lib Dem Liam McArthur reserved particular ire for education secretary Angela Constance, whose lodging of an amendment “without any prior warning shows utter contempt for the committee”.
There had been no opportunity to weigh up whether it was actually a good idea, he complained. If it was, why hadn’t Ms Constance proposed it several months earlier? And didn’t pupils in most European countries get by on fewer teaching hours?
Meanwhile, Highland Council has spelled out some potential consequences (see page 8). Most of its P1-3 classes – 273 in total – already had a 22.5-hour week; an extra half hour a day would cost £2 million. They also raised the impact of the change for those who are not registered teachers, such as assistants for children with additional needs or music instructors.
Enshrining 25 hours in law may be the right thing to do – Scotland’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, certainly thinks so. But it was a move driven by political one-upmanship – not a careful analysis of what is right for schools and pupils – and the lateness of the government’s decision has created a mess.
When it comes to Scottish education’s biggest challenge, namely, the pressure to find huge savings, the problem has not been solved, simply shifted elsewhere. The 25-hour teaching week may be safe, but anything not protected by legislation is firmly in the firing line. 2016 could prove very painful.