This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Earlier today, the Scottish Government published the latest in a series of papers entitled ‘Building a New Scotland’, which are intended to “form a prospectus” for the nation that could be built following a vote for independence.

We’ve already seen ideas about topics including democracy, the economy, migration, and culture – now the focus has turned to education.

The basic claim is that an independent Scotland could pursue “an enhanced approach to education and lifelong learning” but, as the paper itself points out, “Scotland’s distinct and independent education system predates the devolution era”.

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If anything that’s actually something of an understatement, because Scotland’s independent education system is hundreds of years old, having arguably begun when this country became the first to introduce compulsory (although not universal) schooling – an event which predates the Act of Union by more than two centuries.

Education is already an entirely Scottish matter even while we remain within the United Kingdom. If it were so inclined, the Scottish Government could use existing powers to begin a radical, top-to-bottom restructure of Scottish education at any time: unlike in some other areas of public policy, independence is not a pre-requisite for meaningful reform or distinctly Scottish decision-making.

So why does independence matter at all?

The government argument is that independence would remove all of the constraints that currently exist, allowing for policy designed to improve the health and wellbeing of citizens, families, communities, and the country as a whole – all of which certainly would have an impact on education provision and outcomes in Scotland.

The latest paper states that they want to be able to make choices “that make the conditions and foundations for learning even stronger, so that every young person has the best chance possible of succeeding at school and in post-school education.”

Put simply, the premise is that independence would allow the government to make much more progress in tackling poverty and reducing other inequalities, and improving Scottish life overall, and that this would result in improved educational experiences for those living here.

The Herald: Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth with First Minister Humza YousafEducation Secretary Jenny Gilruth with First Minister Humza Yousaf (Image: PA)
Examples of areas that remain reserved include “immigration, equalities legislation, parental and family leave and pay, much of taxation, social security and employment”. The devolution settlement also hampered the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots Law.

Scotland was also dragged out of the EU against its will. This had a direct impact – for example, students in this country can no longer take part in the Erasmus+ programme and are instead stuck with the UK Government’s far-inferior alternative – but also overlaps with areas such as recruitment, research and international collaboration.

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It is certainly true that all of these different issues interact with education provision, and that, as a result, independence would – or at least could – change the landscape of Scottish education.

It is also true that building a more equal country would improve both the inputs and the outputs in Scottish education. Indeed – and contrary to the claims of the SNP over the past decade – reducing social and economic inequality is the only way to have any real chance of ‘closing the attainment gap’.

So in many ways this isn’t really a paper about independence; instead, it is an argument for recognising the full complexity of education provision, including the way in which apparently disconnected policy decisions can and do have a huge impact on things like school experiences and exam results.

And on that point, the Scottish Government is correct.

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People like me have long argued that anyone claiming to be serious about ‘closing the attainment gap’ needs to be interested in issues like housing, public transport, insecure employment, mental health, and much more. The publication of this latest paper suggests that the government understands all that – at least when it suits them to do so.

A fairer and more progressive independent Scotland would be a very good thing for Scottish education, but the question remains: do voters believe that independence is the route to a more equal and equitable future?