As a former teacher of 40 years experience I am disappointed at the tone of the election debate by three of the parties contesting the Scottish Parliament elections on 6 May.
The teachers I speak to and hear from have worked very hard and in difficult circumstances over the past 12 months. Some, particularly in secondary schools, have admitted to working 50 to 60 hour weeks to try to cater for the needs of their pupils, doing everything possible to ensure their success.
It must be particularly galling for teachers and pupils being constantly attacked and undermined by Douglas Ross, the aggressive Tory leader and Lib Dems leader Willie Rennie who tends to overhype issues to gain attention.
The attainment gap has been around for over 50 years and will not go away in the middle of a Covid pandemic and the devastating outcomes of a hard Tory Brexit.
Many of the factors involved are well known, involving poverty, low incomes, Tory austerity in the 1980s and since 2008, as well as poor housing. Many of these issues will require substantial investment; hopefully a green led economic recovery with political parties working together.
The school leaving age was raised to 14 in 1901, to 15 in the late 1940s, to 16 in 1973 and is now effectively 18 for many students, some attending college.
Curriculum for Excellence was started over 20 years ago by the Labour/Lib Dems Scottish Executive with full SNP support. The Tories always opposed it. CfE continued under the SNP government, with cross party support, with implementation from 2010, but is still being tweaked and improved. We need to build on this, not reinvent the wheel again.
Many CfE ideas came from close studies of Finland, which has the best performing educational system in Europe and other nordic countries, encouraging outdoor experiences too.
Its success depends on having a highly trained professional teaching workforce, with full backing of councils, education authorities, schools pupils and parents.
Much that is good happens, every day, in every Scottish school, at all levels. Schools in Shetland, Orkney, Highland and the Western Isles have above average attainment. Pupils are encouraged to think for themselves, form evidence-based opinions, while expressing these with confidence.
Knowledge and understanding is the easy bit, while problem solving and analysis are much more difficult, and are also harder to teach. Pupil attainment in higher and advanced higher has been rising across many subjects in recent years while achievements in music, art, drama and sport are now, in many schools, excellent, in comparison to 30 or more years ago.
In the so-called good old days of Scottish education, only some aspects of it were good. Bullying by both boys and girls was widespread, while teachers belting and legally beating children, in particular, boys was widespread. Those of us who could sprint away from violence or bullying suffered a bit less than many others.
Relatively small numbers of students overcame the many hurdles to proceed to university or college. Grants to encourage low income background students were greatly appreciated and a good investment for the future.
I also came across many compassionate, caring teachers who treated children as young adults rather than as trouble or a nuisance. Today’s generation of teachers and pupils work as hard and achieve as much as ever.
Scholar, online Heriot Watt led courses, in higher and advanced higher biology, chemistry, physics, maths, rench and German have been helping raise pupil attainment for 20 years. Nowadays, there are many more online resources in both primary and secondary education.
Good quality broadband has been as important in education as in business and working from home over the past year. It is possible to build on the many success stories, particularly in the outlying islands.
Scotland has long performed well at tertiary level with five of the world’s top rated 200 universities. The success of the UHI over the past 20 years and the Heriot Watt University post graduate campus, in Stromness. is well known. There is more to do if we are to embrace a greener future.
A return to a more consensual approach by SNP, Labour, Lib Dems & the Greens would help pupils, teachers and schools recover from the ravages of Covid and Brexit. The Tories will no doubt continue to criticise and undermine educational achievement.
There are some real issues of poverty, low income levels, poor housing. More help directed towards underachieving schools, families and areas is needed.
Scotland is surrounded by a number of prosperous, well governed, democratic, independent countries from Ireland to Iceland, Norway, Denmark/Faroes and Finland form which we can learn. Their success is due to hard work, focus, with good economic and educational management. Even within the confines of limited devolution, Scotland can still make progress, but with independence, more could be achieved.
The negative effects of Tory Brexit and the Covid emergency have sharpened the present debate.