Too close to call

Scotland goes to the polls on May 3.  Head Alex Wood looks at what the parties are saying when it comes to education.

 

Next week’s council elections are unique in that they will be held, for the first time, under the single transferable vote system and will see an end to Labour’s previously guaranteed majorities in a host of areas. 

The election to the Scottish parliament is wide-open with some polls suggesting that the SNP will outpoll Labour.  While little is certain it appears likely that Labour will lose seats as will the Scottish Socialist Party while the SNP, the Greens, the Conservatives and the Liberals may make gains.

The options after the election are essentially the continuation of the Labour-Liberal coalition, its replacement with an SNP-Liberal coalition or a minority Executive, led by either Labour or the SNP and backed by one or two other parties who do not however choose to enter a formal coalition. (The Greens might back either party if they got an acceptable deal or the Tories might back Labour as preferable to the nationalists).

For an election that will be fought furiously there are surprisingly few differences in the views of the parties, especially in respect of education.

Labour and the Liberals are campaigning on the record of their coalition.  Labour will further reduce class sizes by reducing Primary 1 classes to a maximum of 25.

It says it will expand nursery education and will support action against indiscipline.

Ian Smith of the Liberals promises to increase training and the provision of ‘cool down’ units to support teachers deal with indiscipline and to provide up to 15 hours of playgroup places to “every two year old who’s parents want one”.  (No news of how he’ll improve grammar and punctuation!)

The Liberals plan to end all primary classes of more than 30 and work towards a maximum of 25.

The SNP will maintain teacher numbers in the face of falling rolls to enable reductions in class sizes, will ensure that appropriate professionals are employed to help pupils with behavioural problems and increase the entitlement to nursery hours by 50 per cent.

The Conservatives say they will tackle class sizes and indiscipline by empowering headteachers to do their jobs and determine priorities in their own schools and support more flexibility and choice in the nursery sector.  The Greens want to reduce class sizes, particularly in primaries to a maximum of 20, believe that a curriculum which does not give scope to creativity is a key factor in indiscipline and want huge additional support in the way of nursery or kindergarten places to families who need them.

The SSP is committed to maximum class sizes of 20, want additional outreach support for children with behavioural difficulties and a free place in a public sector nursery for every four and five year old.

There is a powerful consensus in Scottish politics.  Comprehensive education is generally supported.  Even the Conservatives have never suggested a return to selection by examination.

No party likely to be in government however, will oppose parental choice or abolish league tables.  On the fundamentals of education the only major party which takes a position which varies from the consensus is the Conservative Party which puts a greater emphasis on freedom of choice and on attainment statistics as a measure of quality.

Interestingly, for an election to a parliament, the main powers of which relate to social policies such a s health and education, these are the very policies over which the party differences are marginal.  What essentially separate the parties are their attitudes to issues on which the Scottish parliament has no power.

The Iraq war continues to divide society with all opinion polls showing strong majorities against it but with Labour and the Tories united in defending it.  Replacing Trident, based of course in Scotland, is also an issue which unites Labour and the Tories but opposition to which unites the other parties.  The perception of the UK Labour government tends to be negative and will impact on the polls with every party bar Labour gaining.

However, the issue which most differentiates the parties is that of the constitution.  Exactly 300 years after the Treaty of the Union abolished Scotland and England and created Great Britain, the disaggregation of Great Britain is perhaps for the first time in these 300 years seriously on the agenda.

Labour stands as the most rigorously unionist of the parties since its UK agenda requires Scottish Labour MPs to secure it a Westminster majority.  A joint statement by Jack McConnell and Tony Blair put the Labour case clearly: “For the last 300 years, the union between Scotland and England has delivered stability, prosperity and remarkable influence in the world to the citizens of both countries.

It’s a partnership now deeply embedded in the shared history, economies and millions of families of the two nations.”

The Conservatives remain fairly committed to the union but their market philosophy drives some to propose greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.  The Liberals positively want more powers for Scotland but also a federal system.  The SNP, the Greens and SSP support independence.

The unionist parties are however not only driving against a growing mood in Scotland but in England too, with its strengthening feeling of Englishness, rather than Britishness.

Whatever the outcome Scottish politics will never be quite the same but, for some time at least, there seems likely to be few seismic changes in the world of Scottish education and, in a school system which has experienced a plethora of changes over recent years, that is perhaps no bad thing.

 

The above article was first published in SecEd on 26 April 2007.

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