The new Education Secretary and Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, has made a series of moves to take state control of Scotland’s education sector.
This has been a highly political strategy of timing, of divide and rule and of force majeure, with Scottish Labour risibly led and a political force no more, weakly – gratefully even – subservient to the SNP.
Mr Swinney, in insisting on the introduction of testing at primary level – at the risk of industrial action from the teachers union, the EIS, is buying off resistance by also planning to devolve funding and decision taking to schools and their communities.
The big move, though is his intention to send inspectors into the education departments of every one of Scotland’s thirty two local authorities, to assess what is not delivering as it should to improve attainment and to close the attainment gap between pupils from a better off background and those from a deprived background; and how shortcomings might be made good.
In the old days of not so long ago, the Labour strongholds of COSLA [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] and its subsidiary, ADES [Association of Directors of Education in Scotland], would have come out fighting with the sort of power and authority that could not be countermanded.
Not so today, with Scottish Labour left with three Scottish MPs and not even able to muster enough MSPs to form the official opposition at the Scottish Parliament – now the earned prerogative of the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson, who shows no sign of letting up on the pressure to drive her reinvigorated party forwards.
Now poor Kezia Dugdale sits as Leader and demonstrates nothing so much as no sense of direction whatsoever for Labour, with flip-flopping on major issues – like independence – the mark of her regime, which appears to be tucking itself for shelter under the arm of the SNP.
Meanwhile, the SNP is busily making successful overtures to the trades unions, assuming a self-conferred position of titular champion of the left [which sits oddly with its own strong right wing faction] and leaves Labour even more debilitated.
Mr Swinney has cleverly chosen his moment to strike – and if he is prepared to bin the damaging vacuities of the soi disant curriculum for excellence, his timing and his power may well achieve am intelligently purposed direction for Scottish education.
He says he will clarify for teachers the demands of the curriculum and scarify the workloads involved in the Curriculum for Excellence; and will invest in teachers.
All good – but his necessary ambition to drive up Scottish education’s standards of literacy and numeracy which have been falling hard since 2007, is threatened by an inherent problem.
A significant proportion of teachers in the service today are themselves the product of the period in British education when the baby went out with the bathwater – and themselves lack the core capacities in literacy and numeracy. The problem with the losses of competence in pupils in these areas is not only the consequence of the unfocused and sprawling Curriculum for Excellence but, though no fault of their own, of the capacities of those who teach the pupils.
Qualifying quickly an increased number of teachers from the current system and fast-converting to teachers the newly unemployed from the North Sea oil and gas sector [a strangely anachronistic Scottish government policy redolent of post World War II education] – simply cannot deliver teachers able to improve standards in their pupils’ literacy and numeracy.
There is no quick fix but there is an imperative for a deliberate and sustained strategy to start at the beginning and get it right, accepting that standards will be slow to change but when they do, it can be a continuing and self-generating development.
If Mr Swinney can do this, he will be a first amongst contemporary politicians, for whom appearance over reality for short term party political gain is all, at enduring cost to the nation.