James Bundy is a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the national chairman of Conservative Future Scotland, and the former chairman of the St. Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association.
Yesterday marked the opening of the Scottish Parliament after the summer recess. This was an opportunity for the SNP Government to highlight their plans for education reform, supposedly their top priority. Yet again, however, the SNP let down parents and pupils throughout Scotland.
Just before recess, John Swinney – the Scottish Education Secretary – announced that the SNP’s proposed Education Reform Bill was being dropped. Whilst I did not fully support all aspects of the planned reform, it was a step in the right direction for Scottish education. As a whole, it would have improved the standards of schools throughout Scotland, but the only way the Bill would have passed was with the support of the Scottish Conservatives. Due to their membership’s dislike of the Conservative Party, the SNP avoided relying on the votes of Conservative MSPs, even when this would have improved the lives of thousands of young Scots. This alone should highlight that the SNP will always prioritise the nationalist interest before the national interest.
Knowing that the SNP will always put independence before anything else, I was not surprised that they did not highlight the importance of education in their programme for Government. Education, in fact, only made Chapter Three. I was disappointed that education appeared to be so low down in the Scottish Government’s priorities. The level of numeracy, reading and writing skills is in decline and Scottish education is falling down the international league tables. For a nation that used to boast about having the best education system in the world, this is a sad state of affairs. It should be the goal of every politician in Scotland to make our country the best place to be education in the world once again.
For Scottish education to flourish, we need policies that are well thought out to achieve the best outcomes, not policies designed for soundbites to grab the headlines. This can be best demonstrated with the SNP’s policy of free tuition. At first glance, this seems to be a policy that will help the poorest in society. But to fund free tuition, the SNP have slashed college places – over 150,000 since 2007 – and have cut bursaries and grants. Proportionately, these services impact those on the lowest incomes the most. For a party that claims to stand up for the poorest in society, it is hypocritical for the SNP to cut them.
The SNP also claim that they stand up for the people of Scotland, yet they have capped the number of Scottish courses at Scottish universities. This has resulted in young Scots being unable to apply to some courses at Scottish universities whilst their peers from outside Scotland – including those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – have been able to apply. So whilst free tuition may appear virtuous on paper, in reality it acts as a middle-class subsidy. Rather than describing free tuition as a morally correct policy, the SNP should admit that it is actually a virtue-signalling policy.
By the age of 11, 60 per cent of the attainment gap has already developed. This clearly indicates that any policy that intends to close the attainment gap must focus on early education intervention. That is why I support the SNP’s commitment to double entitlement to funded early learning and childcare for eligible two-year olds, and all three- and four-year olds, to 1,140 hours from August 2020. This will have a positive impact on children from the most deprived backgrounds. This policy, however, is not new, it is simply being re-announced.
And it is not enough. Simply aiming to close the attainment gap is not acceptable. We should be striving for every school to provide the highest level of education it can. This will not only improve Scotland’s standing in the international league tables, but it will also close the attainment gap even more in itself. Sadly, there is nothing in this programme which shows any desire from the SNP Government to achieve this aim. The Pupil Equity Fund – another policy which had already been announced – will give a total of £120 million directly to headteachers throughout Scotland with the aim of closing the attainment gap. Surely if headteachers are capable of handling money to do this, then they are more than able to control their entire school budgets? Giving headteachers this autonomy, however, is something the SNP want to avoid, regardless of its merit, as it would require Scottish Conservative votes to pass Holyrood.
The SNP try and talk the talk when it comes to education, but their track record is abysmal. Falling standards in all ranges of subjects, the cutting of college places, and the capping of courses available to Scottish students at Scottish universities are the direct consequence of SNP policy. Yet, after 11 years of creating these problems, the SNP lack any solutions to them. This administration is looking increasingly tired by the day and has simply run out of ideas. The SNP leadership are fully aware of this and that is why they have become even more obsessed about breaking up our Union.
The Scottish Conservatives must ensure that we keep the narrative focused on the failings of domestic policy in Scotland under the SNP, particularly in education. If we do, we will ensure a better future for the next generation of Scotland.