24 October 2015

Well done Nicola Sturgeon. Yes, really


It is not often that I write something in praise of the SNP leader. I think she needs to be much tougher on the abusive extremists in the Nationalist movement and I would really rather she stopped trying to break up the United Kingdom.

But now she has made a brave decision that I can only applaud. It is one small policy story, yet it has potentially enormous implications north of the border for children from impoverished backgrounds who are being let down by a rigid, failing education system that has needed reform for decades.

The Herald, in Glasgow, reveals this morning that the First Minister is looking at plans for a state-funded primary school outside local council control. Under the proposal – submitted by campaigners fighting the closure of a successful school in East Dunbartonshire – St. Joseph’s primary in Milngavie would be state-funded but be able to raise additional investment from the private sector and charitable foundations. Sturgeon is well-disposed to the proposal, having indicated that she is prepared to begin confronting the tired Scottish educational consensus.

To anyone reading this in England, the plan for St Joseph’s will sound like an unremarkable notion. There has been a 25 year attempt to radically improve state education in England, to increase the life chances of the poorest and to raise standards across the board. It culminated in the Blairites’ Academy programme, which was accelerated by Tory education secretary Michael Gove, who also introduced free schools, which allow parents and teachers to start new schools. The impact in the poor parts of a city such as London is nothing short of breathtaking.

Of course, not everything that has been attempted in England has worked and the benefits are not evenly spread geographically. London has the advantages of scale and concentration, meaning that innovations can be shared more easily between schools and teachers. But the education reform programme is one of the great initiatives of our age. The key insight was that the old, top-down, centrally-planned system, needed opening up. The dogma of the teaching unions and local authority education departments was exacerbated by teacher training that was insufficiently ambitious and wedded to out of date thinking. The Blairites and the Cameroons have made a huge and successful effort to break the old system.

In Scotland, there has been no such effort at reform. Any change was resisted noisily. The system was beyond criticism. When Michael Forsyth and other reformers in the 1980s and 1990s tried to push greater school choice – and new models of direct-funded schools liberated from the dead hand of council control and planning – they were presented as attempting an anti-Scottish incursion. The Scottish system was superior because, well, because it was superior, even though it had long since stopped being superior.

Even the SNP’s education minister now admits that Scottish education is in trouble.

Yet, for decades any attempts made by the small band of reformers, and commentators who advocated change and improvement, were shouted down. The tragedy is that in the last decades many thousands of children have passed through the inadequate school system in Scotland who could have had their opportunities improved by school reform. Intellectual and economic opportunities have been denied to poorer children by smug, middle class Scottish lefties living in a fantasy world who refused to open their minds to developments elsewhere.

Now, Sturgeon has begun to move. Well done. Let’s hope it is just the beginning of a proper reform programme.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX