What is most tragic about the dismal performance of Scotland’s schools in the latest international tests is not that this outcome was predictable, and was predicted endlessly by some of us. The real tragedy is how many children, many now adults, went through a system that was not good enough to equip them for the challenges of the modern world in a way they had a right to expect. The impact is felt in lives less rich, materially and intellectually, than they could have been.
Someone born in the late 1980s, when the Scottish educational Establishment of unions and politicians was first resisting reform aimed at improving standards and opportunities, is now approaching the age of thirty. In three decades hundreds of thousands of Scots have passed through an inadequate system that could and should have been improved, were it not for an insistence that there was no need to try the types of reforms (freeing up heads and teachers, challenging the orthodoxy) that have had a positive impact in England.
If those Scottish pupils were lucky enough to live in a middle class area, the chances are they did fine or well. They may also have been born of prosperous parents in a city such as Edinburgh where more than 25% of pupils go private.
Too many other Scots from less affluent backgrounds have been let down, while the SNP obsessed about the constitution. And it was obvious that this was happening. Sheer dogma and ideological blindness stood in the way of reforms aimed at increasing competitive incentives and raising grades.
It is difficult to appreciate quite how smug and useless most of the Scottish Parliament and broader Establishment were on this subject for decades. Honestly, the infuriating meetings one had to sit through as a reporter and columnist with Labour and SNP politicians while they explained, with a benevolent smile, that there was no need for Thatcherite and then Blairite reforms. It was all about deprivation they explained. The very idea that new ways might be devised to give bright kids from poverty an elite education, of the kind the Scottish system had once excelled at, or of creating world-beating vocational education with parity of esteem. Don’t be silly! Goodness, we don’t go in for that sort of thing. Not in Scotland. We’ll either pretend widespread excellence exists, in defiance of the facts, or say that reforms are un-Scottish.
When Tory minister Michael Forsyth, now Lord Forsyth, tried reform in Scotland he was tried in the court of media opinion and convicted of crimes against the Scottish consensus. When my old boss Andrew Neil took over as the boss of The Scotsman in 1996, and dedicated the paper to reforming education, it was regarded about as favourably as burning down the Edinburgh New Town would have been. As editor from 2001 – and a product of a large comprehensive – I wore out the patience of readers by trying to make the case. Eventually, we all gave up. The Scottish Parliament settled down, and Scotland got a series of Labour and then SNP education ministers dedicated to the status quo (the education system, not the band) and to promulgating the pious Scottish political class moral superiority complex. They should be ashamed, and I’ll wager that some of them, being decent people, privately are.
England has its educational challenges too, as the international studies show. London, with its clusters of dramatically improved schools, is a magnet for smart graduates who can be persuaded to spend time in teaching. Elsewhere, outside cities, it is more difficult to replicate. Free schools and University Technical Colleges are suffering growing pains, and not every Academy (free from local authority control) is working. But there is a spirit of innovation and a relentless quest for improvement and social mobility. It is terrific to see.
I do not wish to suggest that the picture is uniformly bleak in schools north of the border. There are dedicated teachers aplenty and some good schools. But not enough. The correctness of the analysis that a complacent Scottish Parliament buggered up the life chances of too many Scottish pupils is now surely impossible to deny.