“Education, Education, Education”.
We all remember Tony Blair’s famous mantra which proclaimed the three main priorities of his government in May 2007. As we approach the elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2011, we can reflect on how far Education remains a priority at this time of financial stringency.
As the political parties try to establish some clear water between their various policy priorities, we would all do well to ask each party to explain how much of a priority Education is now. Indeed, I would suggest that we go further and ask them to outline their vision for Scotland’s education system for the next few decades.
Is it a vision which will meet the needs of all our children and young people? Do they see the main purpose of schooling and higher education being merely to prepare young people for “employability”? Do they value learning as the gateway to living “life to the full”? Do they show appreciation of the need to “form” young people in values and virtues so that they can lead lives of worth? Are they committed to educational opportunity being “free” and accessible to people, irrespective of their financial means?
Scotland has long enjoyed a positive reputation for the quality of its education system. However, in recent years, some international studies have suggested that standards have deteriorated or that, at best, are not improving at a sufficient pace to keep pace with developments in other countries. How will our politicians rectify this problem?
School education in Scotland is currently dominated by the ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ programme which has revised teaching and learning approaches in every area of the curriculum. There has been broad welcome for its vision which sees every school experience helping young people to become “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors”.
Perhaps we should be asking about the main capacity which we should be developing in all young people: “the capacity to love”. In Catholic schools we try to help young people to realise that we are all, in the Pope’s words, “created for love” – created to receive love and to give love, created to understand that God is the source of all love. Many politicians, however, are afraid of such language. Most of them “don’t do God”, at least not in public, and many don’t believe that God should be allowed to exist in our schools.
Most politicians have begun to question the benefits of Scotland’s schools being run by 32 local education authorities, although, as yet, no one alternative model has emerged. If new governance structures do emerge, we must ensure that the needs of local communities are being addressed and that Catholic schools are managed appropriately.
In Higher Education, serious concerns have been expressed by University Principals about the levels of funding needed for Scottish Universities to remain competitive. Despite the current Scottish Government’s policy on not charging tuition fees for Scottish students, the decision to increase Tuition Fees in England & Wales will impact on Scottish universities, undoubtedly. Recent protests at the University of Glasgow indicate some of the tensions which need to be reconciled. How can our Universities remain competitive and attract sufficient funding without charging exorbitant tuition fees which will exclude Scottish students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds? Archbishop Conti’s recent homily at Mass in the University provided a very pertinent reminder of a University’s responsibilities to local communities and to wider society.
After some years of stability in Scottish education, we are now facing a time of significant uncertainty over a range of issues: funding, teacher employment, school curriculum and qualifications, the governance of schools and access to Higher Education. Now is the time to challenge our politicians to explain how they will match political rhetoric with strategies which will secure improved educational provisional for all.