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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Teaching Tom...and Dick and Harry and Jane: A personal reply to BBC Scotland's Tom Hunter investigation in Scottish Education


Point Editor Steve Arnott replies to the Tom Hunter documentary on improving Scottish Education

Tom Hunter’s education special on BBC Scotland was hailed as an investigation into the attainment gap in Scotland, and how it might be overcome. While I don’t for a moment doubt that Tom Hunter’s concerns are genuine, they are no more genuine or real or necessarily well founded than hundreds of thousands of other Scots who didn’t have the good fortune to ‘get into trainers and shell-suits’ at the right time. So as an equally concerned citizen, here's my tuppence worth.

Let me say at the outset that I found the businessman’s conclusions and the program’s approach shallow, simplistic, and not a little ideologically driven – even if a little of Tom Hunter’s thrust was in the right direction.

If only our schools were opened up to the innovation, drive and leadership of private enterprise and business and saved from the dead hand of bureaucratic councils then all things in the education garden might be rosier, according to shellsuit Tam, inthis highly publicised prime time documentary.

Mr. Hunter (sorry, no ‘Sirs’ on this page) showed examples of an undoubtedly high achieving ‘free’ academy in London, and the example of the independent Newlands Academy led by Jim McColl which takes struggling pupils from state schools and readies them for work or further education.

‘Leadership’ and ‘inspirational’ teachers were the other factors held up as solutions to the problems of Scottish education.

Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson would have been nodding their heads off in hearty approval

The shallowness of this Beeb investigation into the ills of Scottish Education was also rather revealed by this selective approach, however.

It is worth pointing  out that the success of these free, private company run or charitable institutions relies on large sums of public money being diverted from the rest of the educational budget to these projects, the involvement of individuals and or/companies with their own specific agendas, and a degree of selectivity. If every school had the same resources thrown at them as ‘free’ schools and academies in England have done, or the kind of resources that were made available for the London Challenge – all to prove ideological points – then undoubtedly every school in the country would show massive improvements.

That kind of money for every school is not available, however – at least not in a Tory austerity economy hell bent on spending £187 billion on new Trident nuclear weapons and subsidising tax cuts for the wealthy and tax avoidance for multinational corporations. Within a fixed education budget the success of ‘free’schools relies on robbing comprehensive Peters’ to pay for academy Pauls’. It’s a Tory trick and it’s ethically unacceptable.

The second piece of illogical nonsense was the oft repeated drivel about leadership and ‘inspirational’ teachers. I’m sure every teacher aspires to be a ‘good’ teacher – but the idea that every teacher can be Robin Williams out of Dead Poet’s Society or Minnie Driver out of Hunky Dory is a bit like expecting every professional footballer to be Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo.

When tens of thousands of teachers are required for our primary and secondary schools the Bell Curve (or perhaps, more correctly, Curves) of abilities will inevitably come into play, as it does in any statistically measurable population. The answer lies not in seeking perfection from teachers but in ensuring teachers are trained in the best age appropraite teaching methods that can be empirically verified by neuro-science and best practice across the world.  

Armed with the best teaching methods, and adequately paid, valued and resourced, and with reasonable class sizes, even ‘average’ teachers will produce surprisingly good results.

Unfortunately there was no analysis of either the successes or failures of the Curriculum for Excellence in this program, nor any examination of which teaching methods work best.  The issue of falling standards in literacy and arithmetic of those children who have gone through primary under CfE, and increasing anecdotal evidence from teachers of poorer concentration levels of that tranche of pupils coming less than prepared to secondary education was not engaged with, not the increased levels of basic remedial work having to be done with young people going to university.

Nor did the program deal with the massive increase in tick box bureaucracy and non-teaching time that CfE has generated for teachers dealt with. I recently asked a teacher how many hours of actual teaching time they had lost as a result of the bureaucracy generated by CfE. Ten hours a week was the somewhat terrifying, but frank and disillusioned answer.

Hunter’s report was good and strong on one issue – and he deserves some praise for this – in insisting that education was more than about qualifications and higher success statisitics, and that we need wider measures of what constitutes success. A good apprenticeship might be as important an outcome for a young person as five Highers and entrance to university might be for another, he correctly pointed out.

And, he said, nothing beats a good, well-paid job. Of course, what these points in themselves show is that education can’t be separated out from society as a whole: at the end of the day education will frustrate if it only leads to unemployment or low paid insecure precariat jobs.

What socialists and progressives should support is a wholly comprehensive, single and secular system of Scottish education that is fully publicly funded from general taxation, delivered free at the point of need, resourced by central government, democratically administered by local government and which operates on independently verifiable best teaching practice. The involvement of business, charity or religion should be tangential at best.

It should be an education system which aims to produce whole and rounded individual fit for life, and not just university or employer fodder. It should produce people able and confident to engage in society and with the basic skill sets we all need. It should be capable of satisfying the needs of the general population and those of more gifted and able children. Parent’s financial clout or social status or religion should play no role whatsoever in what school children go to.

The aim should be that all schools are ‘good’ schools and that therefore you go to your local comprehensive.

That’s my vision, Tom Hunter, of a world class education system in an independent Scotland

What is needed immediately is to realise – whatever the good intentions of its promoters – that CfE is not working in certain aspects and that it needs to be looked at again. Bureaucracy for teachers needs to be cut. Professionals have to be treated like professionals and teachers allowed to teach without being micro-managed from a bureaucratic and largely social science trained centre that is thirty years behind in its thinking on brain development and largely operates on an outdated uber social constructivist model of human development.

Once that is done we can turn to the bigger questions and create a truly world class education system for ALL Scots citizens.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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