THE importance of education is perhaps the most unifying core belief in politics.

There is perhaps not much to unite Abraham Lincoln and Malcolm X, but the former – “I view education as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in” – and the latter – “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” – are united on the centrality of education.

This is not limited to the rhetoric of politicians and campaigners. Albert Einstein said, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”. John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. And, rather further back, Aristotle said, “The roots of education are bitter but the fruit is sweet”.

The list could go on, but what all are saying, in effect, is that education is at the top of the ladder when it comes to public policy priorities.

It is right, therefore, that much of the public discourse during the pandemic centred on schools. Furthermore, without straying into the whys and wherefores of the publication of the recent report by the OECD, its commissioning and its existence are also to be welcomed.

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Its findings, however, should serve as a line in the sand. And its wide ranging recommendations must ensure that we do not pretend that we can fix this by replacing the SQA and Education Scotland with another organisation which will do the bureaucracy better – Scotland’s schooling problems are not of the order that can be fixed by rearranging the desks at head office. They run far deeper.

There is no shortage of political rhetoric about Scotland’s education system being “world-leading” or “the envy of the world”, but this report should very firmly lay that parochial, self-delusion to rest.

The Scottish Government has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix our schools during the life of this parliament, in a way that many in office would privately admit they did not during the life of the last one. With a landslide election victory, the imperative of the pandemic recovery, and the OECD report serving as justification, the Government could, effectively, start with a blank sheet of paper, retaining all the facets of our schooling which work well, and ridding us of those which do not.

I would like to see the Scottish Government address three fundamental questions.

The first is broad and conceptual: who is education for? Readers may consider the answer to that question to be an obvious one – children. I would agree. But we should be clear that the Scottish schooling system is not centred on the needs of children. It is centred on the convenience of vested interests both in local authorities, and more particularly in the trade unions.

The school shutdowns is a case study of the malevolent influence of the teaching unions. While unions representing other key workers – doctors and nurses, police officers and bus drivers – were engaged in a rapid collaborative effort to reimagine their workplaces in order to provide a service, the teaching unions (by the private admission of those unfortunately enough to have shared a table with them) saw in the crisis the opportunity to strengthen their position as a veto on progress.

The creative work of our teachers – which with four children in state primary school I saw first-hand – was implemented in spite of, rather than because of, the intervention of the unions.

Now, then, is the time for the Scottish Government to be clear in its interaction with the trade unions that schooling will no longer be modelled on the demands of six-figure salaried union bosses; instead it will be modelled on the needs of pupils, in collaboration with the teachers on the ground who, in my experience, are constantly fighting the broken system which their own unions are responsible for preserving.


The second question I would like to see the Scottish Government address is more specifically related to its overarching aim of closing the attainment gap. The time has come to ask ourselves not only whether this is being achieved, but also whether it can be achieved safely.

The OECD report hints towards this when it recommends pursuing not only a ‘closing the gap’ policy but a simultaneous ‘raising the bar’ policy. This takes us to the heart of the unspoken uncertainty hovering above the closing the gap policy – is its success being achieved by suppressing the level of those at the top rather than by raising the level of those at the bottom? If the honest, reflective answer is that it is, then it must be rethought with urgency, because it will help precisely nobody, and the cost will be reflected for decades to come in an underperforming economy and a reduction in wellbeing.

Much better, in my view, would be for us to seek to close the opportunity gap, rather than the attainment gap, so that academic excellence is achievable for any child, in any catchment area in Scotland.

Educational opportunity has been denied to many thousands of children over the last 18 months due to the double school closure. So, the third area I would like to see the Scottish Government analyse is the potential long-term impact of school closures. We do not yet know the future of this Covid-19 pandemic, nor do we know if and when the next pandemic will inflict us.

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For that reason, we need to understand whether the unknown long-term negative impact of the school closures (educational loss, mental health deterioration, the path to poverty, impact on parents and so on), was larger than the known negative impact of keeping them open (virus spread and increased death rate amongst at-risk groups).

This analysis would also help perfect the detail of guidance on issues such as whether school pupils should be required to self-isolate in response to positive cases amongst peers, and on the equally controversial requirement of bubbles operating in schools.

This is a gruesome trade-off for any government to scope, but the reason we are the electors and they are the elected is that we want them to take the difficult decisions on our behalf.

As decisions go, there are none bigger.

Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters