William Butler Yates said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The fire is burning low for too many Scots, for too many families, for too many children across our country.
117% of 3 year olds are signed up for childcare in Scotland today, 117%! How can more children be applying for places than there are children in Scotland?
It can only be because every mother, every father, every family is applying for every nursery place they can think of because they are desperate to improve their children’s chances in life, for the opportunity for upward social mobility, for the opportunity to set a fire alight in their children and allow them to shine.
We have it in our power on May 7th to light a fire, to give these children the opportunities for which their parents are so desperate. We need to ensure that childcare places are available for everyone who wants them, that parents are encouraged and educated to help their children in the first years of life and that we lift children out of poverty by bringing an end to exploitative zero hour contracts and a creating a sustainable £8 minimum wage. We have it in our power to keep these fires burning bright.
But early years are just the start. We have to improve literacy among our children. 60% of the most disadvantaged children fail to achieve basic GCSEs. Even those of high-ability have lower attainment than average ability children from wealthier families.
To stoke their fires we need to ensure that every teacher is fully qualified, to improve our school results by placing the best teachers into the most challenging schools. But it’s not only the three Rs that we need to improve. We must create fully rounded individuals who can compete in a 21st century jobs market.
We can do this by focusing on careers advice, character development and extracurricular activities and ensuring that these are available to all, not just the privileged. Throughout all of this we need to ensure that we properly measure the rates of improvement and attainment so that no child is left behind.
It is not just in our schools and nurseries where the fires of education are extinguished.
In 2013 only 13% of young school-leavers in Scotland eligible for free school meals got to university, compared to over half of young people living in the most advantaged areas. Universities are academic powerhouses which encourage attainment, enlightenment and give our young people incredible opportunities for social advancement, and yet they are far too elite, far too exclusive, far too high in their ivory towers for even our brightest poor to climb.
If we are to stoke the fires in the minds of our young we must ensure that access is available, not just for the wealthy, but for all of our children. They must throw open their doors to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity for university education and we must ensure that they do so. For we cannot allow them to starve those fires of the oxygen they need for success.
Our colleges must do likewise but under this Scottish Government funding for places fell by £34 million in 2014. As funding falls so too do student numbers, falling by 140,000 between 2008 and 2013. This is not nearly good enough.
For many, college is the first stepping stone to a brighter, more prosperous future. We should do better, we can do better and we must do better.
We must invest in our colleges to ensure that those who want to achieve can, that those from any background have the opportunity to progress and that irrespective of previous educational attainment you can improve. The £1,000 increase in bursary for poorer students is a great start but the end goal must be to eradicate student debt.
For those for whom higher and further education is not their goal we have to do more. Children from poorer backgrounds are far more likely to be in lowing paying jobs than those from wealthier ones. This cycle of poverty must be and can be ended.
Ensuring that those who are unemployed are trained and offered paid employment. Ensuring that apprenticeships are available for those who want them and ensuring that people get a fair days pay for a fair day’s work by increasing the minimum wage to £8 an hour and fully supporting the Living Wage.
For we have an opportunity, an opportunity to reduce the inequality gap in our country, an opportunity to ensure that our young are given the best start in life, an opportunity to, as William Butler Yates said, “light a fire”.
And we must ensure that those fires we start are, by the end, burning brighter than the stars.