SCOTTISH politics is just the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it?

Just when we thought there might be a brief lull, with no planned election this year, the debate on independence in something of a hibernation following the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Scottish Parliament's ability to hold a referendum, and the Scottish Government scratching its head over what to do about the UK Government's blocking of the former’s gender reform legislation, the bombshell resignation of Nicola Sturgeon gave us a Scottish National Party leadership contest.

It has been explosive. In a party which is unused to internal debate, let alone the externalising of internal debate, the three candidates to be First Minister have opened up a tin of beans and projected them all over the room.

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Scotland is a country with problems. Some of those are replicated all over the developed world, the most obvious example being economic stress. The economy is clearly Scotland’s most important policy area. A growing economy is a prerequisite for the funding of public services and the bedrock of a successful nation. A new Scottish polling tracker by Redfield & Wilton Strategies shows that voters of all the main parties concur, and so it is right that the SNP leadership election has an element of focus on the role of economic growth.

However, some of Scotland’s problems are home-grown, and not in evidence amongst our peers in Europe. The most important of those is education. Schooling is the single most pivotal public service the state provides to the people. Good schooling, self-evidently, increases the base of smart, productive people in the country, but it also leads to more workers, more productive workers, a broader tax base with a higher tax take, lower crime, better physical and mental health and a reduction in welfare dependency. Education is the wheel; everything else is a cog.

Scotland’s wheel is currently not turning. That our education system is failing, with a lack of ambition and an allergy to excellence levelling down our children, is one of Scotland’s worst-kept secrets. It should be second in the pile marked "urgent" for the next First Minister, after the economy.

And it is for that reason that last week’s renewed pay offer to Scotland’s teachers was such a regrettable decision to take. This may seem a counter-intuitive conclusion. Surely if I value education so much, I should also value teachers? And indeed I do. I think that the role teachers play, the impact they have on our children and the resultant impact their performance can have on Scotland’s economy and society, demands that they are amongst Scotland’s highest-paid public servants.

Last week’s renewed pay offer gives teachers a pay rise of almost 15 per cent over a two-year period (described as “paltry” by the trade unions; readers may wish to compare it with their own pay rise, if they have had one).

Teachers, after completing their probationary year, will now be paid almost £40,000. For illustration, it may be interesting to know that this is several thousand pounds higher than that of a doctor at the equivalent stage of their career, not including the doctor’s requirement to spend several thousand more on ongoing examinations, regulator fees, insurance and membership of their medical royal college. The hours worked, and holiday entitlement, of those two professions, are of course also rather different.


However, notwithstanding that, I have no real issue with teachers earning this level of salary; indeed, I think it is positive and I hope it will attract more high-quality educators in our schools.

The decision was regrettable not because of the outcome, but because of the process. Scotland’s teaching unions, once again, stared down the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Government blinked. This is, sadly, true to form, and it is that which bodes so ill for the future of Scottish education.

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In 2018, John Swinney, as Education Secretary, valiantly attempted to turn the tide on Scotland’s faltering school performance. His Education Bill was designed to empower school headteachers, giving them control over their budget, over the application of the curriculum, and over recruitment, to allow them to hire the teachers of their choice. In summary, Mr Swinney tried to import the best and most successful aspects of European (particularly Scandinavian) schooling.

Readers with children at school will note that this excellent initiative did not see the light of day. It was killed by Scotland’s teaching unions. Killed, because Scotland’s teaching unions saw the decentralisation of power to heads as a precursor to the disintegration of their ability to enforce their agenda on a national scale.

Unlike teaching unions across Europe, which are productive, cooperative actors working for the betterment of children, parents and teachers, our unions are largely disinterested in education outcomes or the people who create them, focussing instead on inputs, process and power.

And so it has proven during the school strikes, where the power imbalance between the unions and the Government was brought into its sharpest focus. Like all playground bullies, the teaching unions attack when they see weakness. Their targeting of the most deprived pupils in the constituencies of specific Cabinet Secretaries was a particularly vindictive move, but one which was of no real surprise.

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The unions are the only winners. Everyone else has lost. Children have lost, as if they haven’t lost enough since Covid; some of the older kids in the middle of examinations could have their lives set back because of these strikes. Parents have lost, almost always financially as well as in the deterioration of their children’s education. Teachers have lost too, not financially of course, but the behaviour of their unions has hammered the reputation of teachers amongst parents, to a point where it will be challenging to rebuild.

We can expect more to come. Past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour, and we should be far from sure that these strikes are at an end.

Scotland’s teaching unions are a malevolent force. They were malevolent during Mr Swinney’s attempts to empower heads. They were malevolent during the government’s efforts to reopen schools after the Covid pandemic. And they are malevolent now.

As we enter a new period of government in Scotland, we should rebalance the relationship with the teaching unions. Through our elected government, we are in charge. Not you.

Andy Maciver is Founding Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters