Nicola Sturgeon has asked the people of Scotland to judge her on her record over education. Neil McLennan, one of the nation’s most distinguished educators, has judged her … and he finds her record badly lacking. By our Writer at Large Neil Mackay

SPEND a few hours talking to Neil McLennan and it is difficult to imagine him even giving a pass grade to the Scottish Government when it comes to education. His assessment will sting Nicola Sturgeon.

McLennan is, after all, one of Scotland’s most distinguished educators – a man described as a “pioneer” when it comes to schooling.

His critique is fierce and unsparing. He believes Scottish nationalism has “infected” education, turning aspects of it “parochial”. And McLennan feels the SNP Government has made a series of significant errors over education.

Reform is needed, he says. The only success to be found, in McLennan’s opinion, comes in the shape of Scotland’s hardworking teachers and dedicated pupils.

Significantly, the First Minister has staked her reputation on education, asking voters to “judge” her on the government’s record over schools.

McLennan is seen as one of Scotland’s most experienced and authoritative experts on education.

He speaks from years of experience across all sectors of education. McLennan is also a senior lecturer and director of leadership programmes at Aberdeen University, although here he speaks in a personal capacity.

He has taught in some of the nation’s poorest areas – McLennan is also a well-known historian – and has influenced education policies.

McLennan is a former president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History, and has worked around the world – often in war-torn countries – helping shape education overseas. He also takes part in the Scottish Futures Forum, the Holyrood think-tank tasked with shaping Scottish education over the next decade.

So, this isn’t the man you want marking your homework if you haven’t put the effort in … and he definitely wants to keep Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers behind after class.

How did we get here?

Firstly, McLennan wants to kill some myths. There’s an abiding belief that Scotland’s education system was, in the past, glorious and unparalleled. “As an historian,” he says, “I’d like to unpick what’s real and what’s not around that idea.”

We’re rightly proud of our ancient universities – with St Andrews established in the 1400s – but Oxford and Cambridge “got there over 200 years before”, McLennan points out. There’s also pride that we started to established what is seen as a “comprehensive” system of education in the 1400s. It was far from comprehensive though, McLennan explains, given school was only for male, first-born children of landowners.

“That’s an exclusive system,” he says. “It wasn’t this wonderful, halcyon golden era.”

By 1872, the Education Act did bring in “real” comprehensive schooling in Scotland – with free learning open to all children under 13. “We’ve got to remember though,” says McLennan, “that England passed its own Education Act in 1870. Many wouldn’t want to recognise that, but we were following in the footsteps of England.”

He adds: “There’s a real risk of Scottish exceptionalism – of thinking you’re greater than thou, holier than thou, better than thou”. The idea that Scotland once had the best education system in the world is “typical of the current Caledonian zeitgeist”.

Come 1972, the school leaving age was raised to 16. By 1987, the belt was eventually abandoned when corporal punishment was banned by the courts. The next big change happened in the 2000s, when Scotland adopted the Curriculum for Excellence – the current model under which all children aged three to 18 are educated.

The same faulty sense of “self-belief” about standards of Scottish education holds true today as it did in the past. McLennan says he’s been guilty of this himself. During his work with educators overseas, he explains: “I’ve championed Scotland, saying we’re doing this, and we’re doing that. It’s a bit of a wake-up call when you’re told ‘well, we’re doing those things too’.”

Around 2000, McLennan notes, Estonian teachers came to learn from schools in West Lothian, piloting best practice relating to skills, employability and enterprise. The Estonians returned home and scaled up the West Lothian pilot. Estonia is now hailed for having one of the most progressive education systems in Europe while Scotland has slipped down international league tables. “In Scotland, we’re good at piloting, but not good at full-scale reform,” says McLennan.

Perils of nationalism

NATIONALISM worries McLennan – and his views will certainly upset SNP supporters. “Nationalism has had a major impact on our education system,” he says. McLennan cites a number of curriculum issues which concern him.

Since 2019, he has been in lengthy but unsuccessful correspondence with the Scottish Government and officials asking for “minor changes needed to the curriculum – we’re talking about the insertion of single words here. One relates to the transatlantic slave trade and the other to World War Two”.

On the slave trade, McLennan says, “if you read guidance from the SQA [Scottish Qualifications Authority, the body which overseas exams] the curriculum gives examples of slave ports like Liverpool and Bristol, but the slave trade wasn’t solely centred on England”. McLennan asked for Glasgow to be inserted given its prominent role in slavery. That hasn’t happened.

He has also unsuccessfully asked for the battle at Saint-Valery-en-Caux to be inserted alongside information on Dunkirk. In 1940, the 51st Highland Division surrendered en masse at Saint-Valery. McLennan notes that as there are demands to teach history “through a Scottish lens”, failing to include such key events makes no sense.

If the amendments were made “it would give a much wider appreciation of history and our past, but there seems to be an unwillingness”.

He fears nationalism influenced these omissions. “Why haven’t we made these changes? Only those in power can answer that. Is it because the system is so bureaucratic even minor reforms are too hard to do? That’s very worrying if so. Is it because of power balances? That those in coveted positions don’t fancy those changes? Or is it because of an underbelly of parochialism linked to nationalism where those changes are unpalatable?”

The thinking is that both additions would be seen, in nationalist eyes, to “do down Scotland” or create a “negative narrative” of Scottish history.

McLennan views nationalism as inherently dangerous “whether it comes from Westminster or Holyrood”. He sees both administrations as guilty of infecting education with nationalism. “It’s a worrying trend across Europe and globally,” he adds.

As someone who has worked with educators in “Bosnia, Kosovo, Turkey and Asia, I’ve seen very dangerous moves in education as a result of nationalist politics having far too heavy a hand on policy which should be driven by educationalists, not politicians”.

The notion, he says, that “Scottish history wasn’t taught enough in schools in the past is also a myth”, adding: “You get various SNP politicians saying ‘I was never taught Scottish history’. I’ve gone back through exam papers from the post-war period, and Scottish history was there. You don’t get exam questions unless a topic is being taught. Admittedly, it should have been taught more, but it was there.”

He now thinks “the pendulum has swung too far the other way”. He cites how World War One  “was moved from a European and world topic to a Scottish topic”, adding: “Today it has to be learned through the lens of Scottish soldiers. That’s daft. Pupils only get marks if they talk about, for example, Hamish McTavish the tank driver with a kilt. It’s utter nonsense and a worrying shift. It’s a parochial lens and you start to see the influence of nationalism coming through in terms of curriculum changes.”

McLennan says the Scottish-centric approach to World War One doesn’t sit well with how the conflict shaped international affairs, like the history of Russia, the reshaping of Europe, and the role America played in the 20th century.

“We need to be careful. There’s a real tension in education. It’s become politicised. We need to get the depoliticisation of education on the agenda. This isn’t just about Scotland, but also Westminster’s influence in England, and political influence on education across Europe and the rest of the world too.”

“Seething cauldrons of discontent” can be stirred up by the influence of nationalism in education, he says. McLennan points to diplomatic spats between Asian countries and Japan over the issue of so-called “comfort women” – women from nations like China forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War – as evidence of how a “nationalist agenda” can badly influence education and society. In schools, Japan has consistently played down the atrocity.

“We need a progressive curriculum which shows all sides –it should be about knowledge in the holistic sense, critical thinking and getting young people to think for themselves.”

He notes the irony of educators like himself working overseas to bring the Scottish concept of “multi-perspectivity” in schools to teachers in “former war-torn parts of Europe”, and “then coming back to your own country where you almost have to defend the virtues of multi-perspectivity”.

McLennan adds that teachers in parts of Europe which suffered from war and occupation “understand that the curriculum cannot just focus on one narrow nationalist lens”.

Without this “multi-perspective” approach, dangerous myths develop, says McLennan, pointing to how “the teaching of Robert the Bruce dispels false narratives. He wasn’t some great nationalist. He swore allegiance to England, switching sides several times, he was possibly born in England, and he maybe fought against William Wallace”.

McLennan isn’t blaming “individuals” for the “negative effect of nationalism on education”. “Rather, it’s what nationalism does per se, as we know from places like Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia. You see the slow-creep influence it can have – how it changes public narratives, public consciousness; how it changes communities; how conflicts can arise from families to broader political tensions.”

The heavy hand

McLennan feels the Government “is far too controlling” when it comes to education. He believes that “as part of the nationalist desire to nation-build and push for independence, there’s an eagerness to show competence in governance and an ability to improve public services”. However, rather than resulting in improvements, McLennan claims, this strategy has led to far too much bureaucracy and interference with teachers who are “drowning in paperwork when they should be teaching”.

“The force of nationalism in governance is a heavy hand on public services,” McLennan adds, and has led to a “cluttered, messy and very controlling system – despite all the words about empowerment. That’s just rhetoric. We’ve moved away from a culture where the education system will and can improve itself”. It all leads back to McLennan’s view that teachers should be running schools, not politicians. There are “too many competing layers” of authority – from central government, local councils and the recently introduced “regional improvement collaboratives, which even teachers don’t always understand”, as well as bodies like the SQA and Education Scotland.

“This simply causes confusion. You’ve all these agencies and powerful figures who must be seen to be telling people what to do. We’ve got thousands of pages of guidance which has brought negligible – nada in some cases – impact on improvement.”

Government mismanagement, McLennan believes, has led to “a toxic culture in education which hinders improvement. Those in power want to protect their positions of privilege. People who speak out get knocked down. A new elite has emerged – and that means tribalism and ‘who’s in and who’s out’ of the new group”. This shouldn’t be how education operates, he says.

Teachers should be running schools in collaboration with the local community. Politicians should confine themselves to “democratic oversight to ensure good standards”. Agencies like the SQA and Education Scotland “have shown themselves to be lumbering, slow to respond and adverse to change.”

Super-schools, with up to 2,000 pupils, are now appearing, with rural schools closing in places. “That’s not community schooling, that’s an industrial model,” McLennan says. “Pass the power back to teachers, and education back to communities.”

Education Scotland’s role in both setting curriculum guidance and inspecting isn’t “fit for purpose”, he claims. “That’s marking your own homework – it’s hardly great in terms of accountability.” A proper system of accountability would separate out these roles. One of the few high-achieving parts of the education system was the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, McLennan says. But the SNP government “swept that into the dead hands of Education Scotland” causing further “centralisation”.

In terms of what should be done, McLennan says: “I wouldn’t say it’s a case of rip it up and start again. Firstly, that’s impossible as the wheels are in motion. But significant changes and reform need to happen.”

Scottish teachers also have one of the highest class contact times in Europe, he says. Staff need time away from the frontline to “keep learning about learning” so they can improve pupil results.

McLennan suggests that rather than reporting to the Government, bodies like the SQA should perhaps report to Parliament. “There’s too much political groupthink. We need to go back to the golden era of consensus and bipartisan accountability.”

He adds: “We’re rhetoric rich and implementation poor. Some talk of the phrase ‘bullshit bingo’ in Scottish education – referring to all the latest corporate slogans. In systems of control, by using this [corporate-speak] you become part of the club, everyone wears the same badge – that’s not a mature system. There’s lots of infographics coming out, but strip away the bonnie colours – what do they mean? There’s toxic power balances and tribal alliances that have formed and they’re antithetical to improvement. We need to get to a meritocracy of knowledge as opposed to the tribalism of who you associate with and where power sits.

“A ‘good idea’ has no rank. But how do we get good ideas out there in a system that’s the other way around – a top-down system of control.”

Government claims that teachers are “empowered” is phoney, McLennan believes. He points to during Covid when heads were told teachers could break self-isolation to go into class. “It’s highly risky – but responsibility on this didn’t sit with the Cabinet Secretary but the poor headteachers. Now reverse this – if a headteacher was worried that Covid was spiking so badly that they should close the school, do you think they’d have the autonomy to make that decision? Absolutely not.”

McLennan says that during Covid it was the hard work and ingenuity of frontline teachers which kept schools operating, not Government or education agencies.

The attainment gap

THE biggest problem, though, for Scottish education is that it’s “underfunded, especially for vulnerable children” and “resources are sometimes badly managed”. McLennan adds: “That’s the responsibility of senior figures.

“There needs to be more accountability upwards where we say ‘you’re responsible for effectively resourcing the systems you created’.”

The big education agencies “create waste and eat up huge amounts of budget. Move that money down to teachers who’d be better placed to support communities and deliver the improvements we want”.

If good teachers are allowed by Government to teach well then “you get goods results” no matter the economic background of pupils, McLennan says. “Children in some of the poorest areas get great results if they’ve the best teaching.” Clearly, he adds, overworked teachers in sometimes toxic cultures, drowning in paperwork, aren’t able to teach to the best of their ability.

McLennan, however, also has problems with the debate around the attainment gap.

Simply talking about closing the gap, he says, “isn’t transformational enough. Very often what happens in Scotland is that teachers get saddled with the social justice agenda. But social justice requires far greater social welfare reform across the board”.

Even if every child got “five Higher As”, he says, “social gaps would appear elsewhere – and education cannot sort socio-economic issues which need to be plugged elsewhere”.

He adds: “We’re passing this responsibility to teachers and just telling them to get on with it.

“If we really want social justice then those in power need to make radical changes to how the system works – as opposed to this neoliberalist passing the buck to frontline services, which the Government hasn’t funded appropriately, or governed effectively, and expect them to work miracles with those in greatest need”.