Iain Gray MSP, Scottish Labour’s Opportunity Spokesman and a former teacher, says Labour will both properly fund and sensibly reform education, and proposes the Scottish Graduate Certificate to recognise young people’s achievements that aren’t formally recognised today.
Our schools need investment and reform. Under this SNP government they are getting neither, whatever they may say about education being a priority.
John Swinney’s budget cuts hundreds of millions of pounds from the very councils who have to deliver school education, and the result is cuts to schools across Scotland. All that comes on top of previous years which have seen 4,200 fewer teachers in our schools, the loss of hundreds of classroom assistants, teachers buying their own paper and pencils, and a steady fall in expenditure per pupil.
The SNP’s flagship “attainment fund”, at around £30 million next year, pales into insignificance against the scale of the cuts to school budgets.
Scottish Labour fought to use the powers of the Parliament to stop these cuts, and to commit to protecting education budgets in real terms for the next five years. We put forward a plan to set a Scottish rate of Income Tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne so we could stop the cuts to schools. The SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote that down.
Our approach to schools is not only about stopping the cuts, though. We need reform too. After all, the great reform of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was a Labour idea and a Labour policy. The SNP have failed really to implement it in the senior phase of school. They have bolted on an examination system which does not build on CfE, and as a result have narrowed the curriculum in a way which threatens the broad education which was always one of the Scottish system’s strengths.
We should be creating a far more diverse senior school for pupils to develop the skills they need to succeed in the modern world, not reducing their options. That has to encompass not just traditional schooling but also vocational courses, colleges, universities, the world of work and the voluntary sector. Danny Murphy, former Head Teacher and leading educationalist, calls this creating a comprehensive education, not just a comprehensive school.
To understand how this can happen, we only need to look at innovation which is already happening in many parts of Scotland, driven by strong local leadership in our schools. This week Kezia Dugdale and I visited Preston Lodge High School in Prestonpans to see some of this for ourselves. Preston Lodge has a proud history, and some famous ex pupils, not least the late artist John Bellany. The school is not standing still, though.
As well as traditional exam courses pupils can learn leadership skills alongside their teachers with Columba 1400. They take part in East Lothian’s “Academies” such as the Hospitality and Tourism Academy, a partnership with Edinburgh College, Queen Margaret University and employers who provide work experience. They can undertake the Duke of Edinburgh awards, or participate in a competition level pipe band built up with the Pipe and Drums Trust. Preston Lodge is also one of the most active users of the Open University “YASS” programme, in which senior pupils undertake undergraduate level study through individual learning while still at school.
Now Preston Lodge have formed the first school development trust in the country, in order to leverage in additional funding through their own efforts and create further innovation, not least increased time for teachers to work with their peers on improving their professionalism and teaching skills. The school already has a Principal Teacher of Classroom Practice, a unique commitment to pedagogical excellence and innovation. This kind of innovation needs to be supported, not cut off at the knees by short sighted budget cuts and badly targeted “attainment funding”.
As for imaginative learning routes for young people, the key is that attainment outside traditional academic exams has to be properly credited. That is the key to making this kind of imaginative development core to every school, and not seen as some kind of distraction from delivering as many Highers as possible for the most able pupils.
Scottish Labour is proposing a Scottish Graduate Certificate, based on thinking by Danny Murphy and the existing Welsh Baccalaureate, created by Labour colleagues in the Welsh Government. This certificate would be provided to every young Scot, probably at age 18, in or out of school. It would encompass attainment in traditional exams but also vocational courses, work experience and voluntary achievement. The aspiration would be to see it become a useful qualification in applying to college, university or to a potential employer. In Wales, for example, the Baccalaureate is already considered equivalent to an additional exam pass by universities.
All of this would make sure that a young person gets the credit they deserve for achievement in the round, evening up some of the bias towards traditional qualifications (but not reducing their importance), and it would oblige schools to create new learning pathways for their pupils, or be left behind in equipping them for life.
It also sits well with the aims of the Wood report, “developing the young workforce”. Scottish Ministers pay loud lip service to DTYW (as they like to call it), but there is a real danger it will amount to not much more than every secondary school having a limited partnership with their local college, for a few pupils. Wood describes something much more profound and transformational that that.
Crucially these reforms would also build on the innovation already happening, but not always acknowledged. In my experience as a teacher the most successful school reforms build on ideas initiated by teachers themselves, as Standard Grades were born from the importing of CSE exams from England by teachers in Scotland who saw a group of young people entirely excluded from the exam system of the time.
None of this will happen, though, as long as we have an SNP government intent only on pretending they have not cut education budgets when they manifestly have, and interested only in the headlines of attainment funds and national tests, without the slightest idea of what they really mean or how to make them work.
Schools need investment and reform, not a government making their education policy up as they go along.