Let’s embrace real parent choice

We shouldn’t automatically reject policies just because they were first introduced by Labour in England, writes IAN SMART


The most controversial speech during last month’s Holyrood debate on the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill was delivered by Tory MSP John Lamont.

Mr Lamont suggested, with reference to his personal history, that one of the factors behind the polarisation of west/central Scotland was the division of children along denominational lines from the moment they enter Primary School. The reaction from the other parties, indeed from within his own party, could not have been more outraged if he had suggested the free circulation of crack cocaine. This simply illustrated  the fundamental dishonesty of current Scottish politics.

One of the factors behind the polarisation of west/central Scotland is the divided school system. It is not the only factor but Mr Lamont did not say it was. And that unintended by-product of denominational schooling does not mean that denominational schools should be abolished; but again, that was not a proposal Mr Lamont made. He simply suggested that it was a contributory factor that had to be recognised.

Now, I am not a Roman Catholic but I have always been a defender of Catholic Schools because it has always seemed to me that in a free society people should be entitled to a choice when deciding how their children should be educated. But I have always recognised that this is not a consequence-free situation, as indeed are any number of other policy choices:

  • • The smoking ban was a flagship achievement of Labour’s time in office but it has to be recognised that an unintended by-product has been an increase in people drinking at home, rather than in the pub and that in consequence they are drinking more, because its cheaper and measures are not… measured.
  • • The decision by the SNP to keep open local A&Es meant people had a shorter distance to an emergency hospital but, bluntly, if they were seriously ill, also meant they were less likely to receive state of the art treatment when they got there.
  • • I would have had (some) more time for our knife crime policy at the last election if we had at least recognised that it would have led to a number of abused women and misguided have-a-go heroes doing six months pokey but been prepared to defend that as the price of the wider objective (actually, this is not the best example as it assumes the policy was coherent, which it clearly wasn’t).

I could, however, go on to list any number of other examples, but my main objective is simply to point out the extent to which the current climate in Scottish politics assumes that some policies, particularly policies such as denominational schooling (or free personal care) which have all-party support, are deemed to enjoy – simply in consequence of that support – the virtue of having no downside. Worse still, those who might try to question that conclusion are treated as if they have no place in civilised company. That’s not the basis for good government. Indeed its not even the basis for a properly functioning democracy.

Which leads me to my final point ,which is that too often a similar mindset exists within the Scottish Labour  Party itself.  The Scottish Party’s attitude to choice in schooling is immovable in two things: children can choose to go to a non-denominational school or denominational school. But, unless their parents can pay, they must go to a school run by the local authority. Now, one of the interesting reactions to Mr Lamont’s speech was the spokesman for the Catholic Church drawing attention to how many non-catholic children now go to Catholic schools. This is undoubtedly true. The reason for it is because the parents of these children have looked at what is on offer and made a choice to send their children there. There are many reasons for this but undoubtedly among the factors are that Catholic schools have a reputation both for better discipline and a greater commitment to the comprehensive principle that no child should be abandoned to ignorance or allowed to behave as if they were superior to their fellow students.

Now, many of my teaching friends will argue that this perception is unfair on the non-denominational sector but few would argue that it is not a perception that has wide currency. My point, however, is this: if we defend that particular choice, why are we so opposed to other choices that parents might want to make for their children’s education, particularly the choice to choose a school not run directly by the local authority? The crucial issue is surely not bureaucratic structure but quality of education and standard of result.

So, let’s stop looking down our noses at some of the innovations Labour tried down south. They may not be applicable to Scottish circumstance; they may even not produce the results claimed for them. But they are surely worthy of debate.

Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of  Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published in an extended form on Ian’s blog.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s embrace real parent choice

  1. So does that mean you’d support Grammar schools (on the basis that they encouraged mobility, and if you couldn’t afford it but were academically clever you would get a bursary)??

  2. All controversial stuff Ian and worth discussing. I was involved a number of years ago in campaigns on education and was one of the Directors with the Parents Coalition that fought against the Tories introduction of “Opting out ” of schools from the State sector. This would have left schools in more vulnerable areas exposed to a dilution of educational standards while the schools in the more affluent areas took off and obtained better funding if their exam results were better, hence the original intention of the introduction of league tables.

    Probably the most important element in education is the link between parents and the local authority, they are very good at working together and the main basis for comprehensive education is that all children are given an equal chance of progressing in life. Protecting that principle is still at the centre of the concerns of most parents in Scotland. It doesn’t matter where you are in Scotland you should get the best education available whether it is in Easterhouse or Easter Ross. And Parents and Teachers as well as the Local Authorities have always aspired to do the best for the young people in this country and are to be congratulated for the effotrs that they all make.

    The other and probably the most controversial area concerns parental choice. We have seen the issues associated with St.Ninians in East Renfrewshire where parents want their children to attend that school due to its academic achievements. That is fine but as it is in the state sector we should be reaching out to ensure that ALL schools in the sector are achieving these kinds of results, but it shows that it can be done.

    Having witnessed the differences in the Scottish and English education systems it became apparent that there is a different attitude to education in Scotland, we have a more inclusive approach and England has a more diverse one.

    Looking at England is fine as far as it goes but we have a very good approach to education here and properly resourced and staffed will become better over time. We have to ensure that the school building program continues to assist our young people getting the best education available in the best facilities with the best trained staff, that is the main goal for all of us and is worth fighting for. By doing this we are investing in our childrens future.

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