Alastair Osborne says Labour’s internal bickering over state vs private schooling must not distract us from the problems we must seek to address in the state of Scottish education.
Our education system in Scotland was for many years regarded as the jewel in our crown and held up as one of the best in the world. Although that reputation has taken a battering under the stewardship of the current SNP government, in Labour we still feel that it should occupy that position. State education matters to us.
When some people in our party question Anas Sarwar’s suitability to lead Scottish Labour because he chose to send his children to an independent school, they are raising a legitimate issue. We could never have considered sending our children to a private school whatever the circumstances but parents have to do what they think best.
But I have no doubt that much of the outrage we have seen is a proxy for opposing the return of Scottish Labour to the mainstream and the defeat of the hard left. You never hear them berating Diane Abbot for sending her children to private schools, nor do they criticise Richard Leonard for attending independent Pocklington – a school that gave the world William Wilberforce and Adrian Edmonston. Tony Blair is looked down on for going to Fettes but Tony Benn is forgiven for going to Westminster. It’s all too easy to dismiss politicians who went to ‘public’ or independent schools as stuck up toffs – many are, but others grew up to embrace radical and progressive causes. Just look at Tam Dalyell for example.
I did a bit of delving into the educational background of the current Scottish Parliament. I found that MSPs are now five times more likely than the average Scot to have been privately educated. Twenty per cent of politicians elected to Holyrood in 2016 went to independent schools. This is up from the previous Parliament due to the resurgence of the Scottish Tories who are always more likely to have had private education. Thirteen of the 31 Conservative MSPs were independently educated, while only 5 Labour and 6 SNP were.
As you would expect, the Labour Party is solidly rooted in the state education system. Every UK Labour Leader from Harold Wilson to Keir Starmer, with the exceptions of Michael Foot and Tony Blair, went to state schools. Scottish Labour greats like John Smith, George Robertson, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Helen Liddell and John Reid all went to state schools. When you look at Scottish Labour Party leaders the same pattern is to be found. Donald Dewar went to Glasgow Academy but every leader after him until Richard Leonard went to a state school. Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale all went to state schools.
Scottish education is still hugely important in Scottish politics but not merely in terms of what school you went to. Nicola Sturgeon described improving education in Scotland as the ‘defining mission’ of her 2016 government and said that she should be judged on her record on education.
The place of state education remains secure, but it’s the state of education under the SNP that we should be worrying about. After nearly 14 years of the SNP running Scotland:
- Spending per pupil has fallen.
- Teacher numbers are still below 2007 levels.
- Class size targets have been missed.
- Scotland is sliding down the international rankings.
- Pupils were unfairly treated in the SQA results scandal.
- The attainment gap has persisted.
We need to restore funding for our schools and increase teacher numbers to at least pre-SNP levels; reduce class sizes and ensure all pupils get the time they need with their teachers. If Scottish Labour is to find a way back in Scotland it has to offer the electorate some big ideas and initiatives for a post-Covid recovery – not just on education, but also on health, social care, taxation, jobs, tackling poverty, promoting equality, the environment, local government. The electorate deserve parties and leaders with real policy choices to offer, but politicians can’t be expected to focus on that if their energy is constantly expended on dealing with internal squabbling and back stabbing.