Today marks my first year as Scottish Labour Leader. When I took over the 12 months ago, we were in a hard place. We had lost badly in the Scottish Parliament elections and we were unprepared for the prospect of a referendum that would decide the future direction of our country.
I believe we have made considerable progress in reforming the party, in holding the government to account in the choices they are making, in winning the argument on the constitution and proving that Labour can once again meet the aspirations of people across Scotland.
But I was under no illusion of the scale of the task when I took on the job as leader last year and I am under no illusion now. We still have a very long way if we are going to prove to people that we both have an ambitious vision for a better Scotland, and that we can deliver it.
So I don’t want to spend today looking back on the last year, I want to begin communicating our vision of a better Scotland today, and I want to talk about an area that is the key to unlocking that better Scotland.
High quality public services are the mark of a civilised society, a bond forged as we come together to meet need, create safe and secure communities and the strongest glue in that bond is education.
Scotland has a proud history in education and that is no empty boast. It is often said that Scotland’s best asset is its people, and by investing in our people, this country has achieved great things.
But are we equipped to deliver great things in the 21st century? Are we placed to equip our people with the tools needed to compete in a global market, where countries we would have once looked down our nose at are developing and advancing rapidly? Can we keep pace?
I believe that Scotland should have the ambition to lead the world in education again, but if we are honest, we have to admit that we are some way off.
As a small country on the edge of Europe we need to ensure our people have the ability, the talent and the skills to help create that better Scotland when the world is changing rapidly all around us.
I want to start by talking about my own experience of education, of how it shaped my values and how it informs the way I want to see Scottish education.
I grew up just a stone’s throw away from this magnificent building and I spent many an hour studying here.
My parents instilled in me the importance of learning. They were taught on the small island of Tiree. My father left school early but he left numerate and he was literate in what was not even his first language. My mother, marked out as a bright pupil, had to head off to Oban for her secondary education and while doing well, she did not make it to university, in large part because of the adverse impact of being separated from her family at such a young age.
My husband Archie left school at 15 and through his trade union activity was drawn to education again. The Labour and trade union movement historically revered education; it is fitting that reportedly the first subscription library was that started by the Leadhills miners in 1741. Archie in his thirties took the brave step of enrolling at Glasgow Caledonian University, studying in the evening, working fulltime and paying for the course himself.
I am immensely proud of my mother who in her early forties travelled across the city to Langside College to re-sit her Highers; many times we came to the Mitchell, she to study and my brother and I to do our homework. And I am full of admiration for Archie and the many like him who struggle with work, family and other pressures and still pass their exams!
I went to Woodside Secondary School, again not far from here, a real school of ambition for working class children but of course already shorn of primary school pals who at eleven had been deemed inappropriate for an academic education.
I was encouraged from early on to achieve and to think of university and a career. But not everyone who went to my school would have the same opportunities as me. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that there is great inequality across Scotland, not least in our cities, and there are many things that inhibit us from achieving our potential.
At university I revelled in the opportunity to study and discovered the joys of Labour politics, the Labour values of aspiration and fairness which chimed with my upbringing.
I went on to teaching, first in Rothesay, and then for many years in Springburn and then Castlemilk. I spent far longer in teaching than I have in politics.
And when I think of education it is as a living, breathing thing. I see the faces of children I taught, the people I meet in this job who embody the scale of the challenge to which we must rise. The bullied child, the child too afraid for her mother at the hands of her father ever to be able to concentrate on her homework, the young carer juggling his home responsibilities with learning, the child in care struggling to cope, the family shattered by bereavement, the son cashing in his qualifications early to get a job, the mums building their confidence to learn supported by college outreach, the young mother bringing up her child on her own and attending university being advised by the job centre that she would be better to stay on benefits at this time in her life.
I saw first-hand how our education system enabled some children to achieve their potential and go on to a better life, I saw many others let down and felt frustration that for a whole range of reasons some children fell short of what they were capable. As a teacher I sought to do my best for the children in front of me; the aspiration for me coming into politics was to play a part in changing the lives of children across Scotland.
And now as a parent of two teenage children, I see education from a different standpoint. Colin and Fay go to Europe's largest school, in the south side of the city, indeed my son has prelims this week.
The wonder of seeing them develop into young adults, striving towards their own goals and aspirations is the greatest joy in my life, but it’s also tempered by my frustrations with an education system which is far from perfect – which is not delivering for all children.
As a student, as a teacher and as a mother, I have seen the best and worst of our education system.
We know that education can be the springboard to a better life, and through that, education can be a key to a better Scotland.
And we know this too – that education can reflect inequality; the test is to ensure that our education choices do not reinforce inequality but challenge it.
In a globalised world, where many of our major competitors are in the process of transforming into knowledge economies, a high performing educational system that mobilises the skills and talents of all individuals will be of crucial importance.
Education will be the key to our future economic prosperity, material well-being and standard of living.
But education is not just about providing workers for the labour market – important though that is.
Education is a good in itself – it is the trademark of a civilised society.
Education is what allows us to fulfill our potential.
Education is the key to unlocking a better society.
A central aim of Scottish education should be to produce thoughtful and enquiring individuals.
But simply saying it will not make it so. It cannot be, in this as in all political choices, that what we say we want is contradicted by what we choose to do.
In Scotland we have strong foundations on which to build.
Education is highly valued in Scottish society.
The influence of Scottish Enlightenment thinking – a tradition that produced thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith, and set the context for later Scottish technological achievements such as the telephone and television – means that the value of education has been widely recognised.
A further strength of Scottish education is its egalitarianism.
Scottish education is based on a powerful unifying ideal: that everyone should have the opportunity of a good education, regardless of background.
Scotland was the first nation to aspire to universal elementary education. In 1696 – just prior to the Act of Union – the Scottish Parliament passed the School Act establishing a school in every parish. It made Scotland one of the first societies in which literacy was widespread.
Similarly, university was never a privileged preserve as in England: for example, at the end the nineteenth century, nearly 20 per cent of students at Glasgow University came from manual, working-class backgrounds, something inconceivable south of the border at that time.
The “lad o’ pairts” – the clever young Scot able to rise from humble origins thanks to Scotland’s open educational system – was not a myth but perhaps it is worth reflecting that lasses o’ pairts were less in evidence.
The high value placed on education is why Scots have had such a disproportionate influence on the shaping of the modern world.
Scotland must face up to the fact that, in recent decades, we have fallen behind. We are no longer top of the table. A smug regard for past glories is damaging and dangerous.
I believe that by building on our traditions, and addressing the hard, long-term questions, Scotland can become a leading educational force again.
Scotland cannot only do better in education – we can become the leading centre of learning we were in previous centuries. This has to be our ambition.
This requires looking at the education system as a whole.
Of course, we know that the educational journey begins before children go to school and for many, there life chances are all but decided at this stage.
For many children, secondary school and even primary school can be too late and we need to ensure they are put on the right footing at the very beginning.
Schools at their best are woven into the fabric of the communities they serve, a place to gather out of school hours as well as in them. We have seen exciting initiatives creating community schools and we should support steps where schools are opened to the broader community and where families see themselves as part of their child’s education, supported to support their child to learn.
We have to get away from the idea that a good school is one that simply gets good examination marks.
That’s one measurement of success, but not the only one.
It is also not the Scottish way.
In 1947, the Advisory Council on Education in Scotland argued: “the good school is to be assessed not by any tale of examination successes, however impressive, but by the extent to which it has filled the years of youth with security, graciousness and ordered freedom….”
Schools are not exam factories for the rat race a view expressed in the elegant remark, attributed to W B Yeats, that: “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.”
But examinations do matter too - and we should reflect on the competitive disadvantage for pupils at schools which do not offer the opportunity to sit five Highers in S5 when so many highly sought places demand 5As in one go as an entrance requirement.
Low educational achievement leaves far too many of our young people unequipped for the challenges of life. The costs of failure – both to individuals and society – are impossible to calculate.
The sad truth is too many young people leave school without qualifications or skills that matter in the jobs market, while many of those who do not wish to pursue an academic route are being denied the world class vocational training that the economy needs for future competiveness and increased levels of productivity.
Raising the attainment of pupils from less well-off backgrounds is not just about giving them a greater chance in the labour market – it is the best way to drive-up improvement and standards in the school system as a whole.
We need a systematic approach – not a patchwork one.
School leaders must be empowered to take measures that deal with disruptive behaviour and truancy. We all know how it only takes one disruptive pupil to spoil the learning of an entire classroom.
We understand the importance of a safe, calm environment in which to learn and we must look too at how children can be supported to behave and learn. Cuts in local government funding and pressure on schools, of course, have seen the supports which can make all the difference to a child, being stripped out of the system.
We need to re-empower the teaching profession. Whenever possible, decisions should be taken at the school level. We need to be less “top-down” and prescriptive.
Teachers become teachers to help children learn and develop. We are on their side. We know that the 4000 reduction in teaching staff, coupled with cuts in support staff, results in huge pressure on all those seeking to do the best for our young people.
In spite of relatively low differences in learning outcomes between Scottish schools, an achievement gap between rich and poor continues to persist in Scotland. The educational divide between rich and poor is a scar on the country – it is simply unacceptable.
The school system, in truth, is failing those who need it most.
Schools with a higher proportion of pupils registered for free school meals have: lower exam results; a higher percentage leaving school and not entering education, training or work; and higher truancy levels.
Last month, for the first time, the Scottish government released detailed
statistics on how many fifth year students from the poorest 20% of Scottish
areas got three or more A grades at Highers.
Shockingly, in 2011, the number who achieved three or more As for the whole of Scotland was 220. That is just 2.5% of nearly 9,000 fifth year students who live in the poorest areas.
In the city we are in today, Glasgow, which has nearly 2,400 pupil in fifth year from the poorest 20% of households, only 58 got top grades.
In Edinburgh, only 7 pupils from the city’s poorest postcodes got three or more A grades. In Dundee the number was five.
And just as we do not ascribe the scandal of health inequality to the abilities of doctors in disadvantaged communities, it cannot be that this education gap is caused solely by poor teachers. I am not dewy-eyed about my profession and I know that there are those who care too little and inspire not at all; but I also know that I worked with the best of teachers who despite their talent and commitment could not overcome the range of barriers to achievement for these young people. This must be a truth to be confronted.
Our education system is not delivering for the poorest.
Egalitarianism should not be confused with uniformity. Different and innovative approaches to learning should be encouraged. Targetted support, nurture classes, mentoring, summer schools, supported study, access to extra tuition – all these and more should be directed at closing the gap.
To those who warn that this will lead to a “two-tier education system”, I say: “I am a believer in the comprehensive ideal. However, I will never be closed to new ideas. I will always put the interests of children – not dogma – first. We already have a two-tier system – one for the well off, one for the poor.”
We need to value the vocational.
The Scottish government’s approach to apprenticeships shows how far we have to go. Their promise of 25,000 modern apprenticeships was achieved only by sleight of hand. Over 10,000 publicly-funded apprenticeships designed to help unemployed people have been given to people already in work. Some of these last only six months and many only a year. This detracts from the value of apprenticeships to young people and the wider economy.
Properly accredited and approved apprenticeships provide a high-quality alternative to academic routes for young people and are central to our future economic prospects.
We need to move away from the simple “numbers game” that undermines the esteem in which apprenticeships are held.
We should be concerned with the quality of apprenticeships not just quantity. We need the term apprenticeship to have that special ring of quality again.
At the moment, vocational education is too often seen as something for those with too few Standard Grades or Highers.
It is seen as a second option. It should, instead, be seen as one of several equally valued options.
Children are different: they have different hopes, aspirations and aptitudes. If a child thinks a vocational route is the right one for them, this should not be discouraged. The vocational route should not be seen as a poor alternative.
In Germany, for example, apprenticeships are not only seen as being equal to a university education – in many careers they are seen as better.
The German tradition of very high standards overseen by business and the professions is something we should seek to emulate.
In government we recognised the importance of FE colleges, seeing them as partners in community regeneration, in second chance education, in reaching out to encourage people to learn, to skill people for work or give them the opportunity to improve their skills to progress at work. We need to be ambitious for our colleges.
To secure the world class skills base that Scotland will need in the twenty-first century, we need to establish “parity of esteem” between further and higher education sectors.
The further education sector faces tighter budgets, reduced capital spending, rival demands on what it should deliver and the challenge of new governance structures. It is therefore essential that politicians work with colleges to look creatively and ambitiously at the sector’s future.
As the Royal Society of Arts has argued, colleges should be supported in their ambitions and their evident creativity and innovation should be properly valued. Amongst other initiatives they should be supported to
Become hubs for supporting social enterprise – offering skills and training for social entrepreneurship.
Return adult continuing education to the centre of further education’s mission – sponsoring lifelong learning activities.
Over the last few years we have seen a deliberate policy of targeted cuts to FE. In the last year 1400 lecturing and support jobs have been lost, there are 70,000 fewer students and there has been a cut of 34% in courses for adults with learning disabilities – with all that means for our aspiration for independent living. The further education sector’s economic role is also important. However, the economic potential of colleges cannot be realised through a top-down delivery model. Colleges must be set free to:
Become research and development centres for Scottish Enterprise’s regional operations across Scotland – providing the resources for local economic growth.
Promote and facilitate small and medium business networks – becoming local business centres.
Establish and run area-specific courses – in line with the requirements of local economies and enterprises.
However, it is not just the economy where further education is important – colleges, when at their best, can provide a range of public benefits, from enhancing community cohesion through to encouraging active citizenship.
We have an unacceptably high level of youth unemployment in Scotland. Yet the Scottish government has chosen to slash the funding for colleges.
How many young Scots are not in education, training or employment? How many of these young people will fail to achieve their potential? Colleges provide opportunities to young people who have struggled at school either academically or because of disrupted lifestyles, yet they are budget losers. That is not a progressive policy choice. And as the Budget in the Scottish Parliament approaches, we in Labour will confront the Scottish Government with the reality – ‘free education’ funded at the expense of the college sector with all the impact that will have.
In higher education, we need to address hard, long-term questions – not only to put universities on a long-term sustainable footing, but also to ensure Scottish institutions thrive and become the best in the world, in terms of research output, teaching quality and student experience. The big questions we must address are:
How can universities best serve a diverse and growing student population?
What role can higher education play in encouraging sustainable economic growth across Scotland?
If investment in world-class research and teaching is to keep pace with other leading nations, what is the best way to pay for it?
What should be the relationship between higher education and further education?
We need a long-term solution to higher education funding in Scotland. If we do not find one, Scottish universities will begin to lose ground against their international competitors.
We also need to look at whether the current higher education funding arrangements are fair. While it is undoubtedly true that higher education is a public good, it also results in private gain to those who undertake it. Graduates not only receive higher lifetime returns, but a disproportionate number also come from more privileged backgrounds. These two points, taken together, mean that a no-charge system is essentially regressive.
There is no such thing as free higher education: under a completely tax funded tuition system, everybody is forced to pay for it, including those on low incomes.
Labour believes in extending the chance of a good university to all who are capable of undertaking study. However, university education is costly, and faces competing claims on limited public resources.
Whilst it was possible to sustain a system of publicly-funded higher education in an environment of relatively low participation, this is not viable in an era of mass participation without a very serious diminution in standards and quality.
Our universities will not only be competing against institutions within these isles. Our universities need to compete against the best in the world. This autumn, it was reported that Scotland’s top universities, including St Andrews, Aberdeen and Glasgow, had fallen down an international league table. The international reputation for Scottish higher education is at risk.
St Andrews dropped from 85th to 108th on the list, Glasgow fell from 102nd to 139th and Aberdeen now stands at 176th - down 25 places from last year.
Scottish universities are not only in competition with Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College, London.
They are in operating in a competitive global context. They are also in competition with Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Peking University.
At the same time, there is an important issue of widening access. The present Scottish government’s policy of free tuition fees has not increased the number of low income students going to university. There is also a shocking lack of articulation agreements with colleges and our dropout rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the poorest in the UK.
Education is part of our identity. It is a proud part of our history. It is vital to our future. But I am not sure that, beyond our conceit of ourselves, Scottish education being the best in the world is the modern lived reality for most Scots.
We, the country that boasted four ancient universities when our neighbours had just two, cannot claim that global lead today.
Scotland, the country which in the 17th century demanded a school in every parish and then unleashed arguably the most educated population in the world on the world through the 1707 union, cannot claim to be leading the world now.
We are not living up to our history. We are not living up to our tradition. And we have the irony of a nationalist government which is pursuing education policies which are profoundly anti-Scottish.
For the Scottish tradition is to make it possible for everyone to make the best of themselves. Our bar was never an elitist one. It was that we would provide the possibility for everyone to make themselves better, to move themselves down the road from where they were, to stretch themselves.
Now we have a government which has slogans rather than policy.
Education is supposedly free. The rocks will apparently melt before it is otherwise. But the truth is different.
I want to return to a system where everyone can make the best of themselves. But I want it to be a better system than we have today.
The nationalists insist we are doing better than England. England is after all their obsession.
My view is broader view. England is our neighbour, one of our partners in the UK, but not our yardstick.
Scots and Scotland compete internationally. For our proud nation to attract the investment we need to prosper to a small country on the edge of northern Europe we need to have the best educated population in the world.
Our yardstick then is not what is happening in Essex, but what is happening in China, in the USA, what is happening in India and South Korea.
By tradition, our schools were not just better than those in England, they were amongst the best in the world. Now, despite the best efforts of teachers and pupils, our schools are at best mid-table in the world league.
Of our four ancient universities only one is in the top one hundred in the world.
I do not criticize one teacher or student for that. But I ask us as a nation to take a step back and look at where we are, where we thought we were, where we used to be and ask where do we want to be.
I have said before that I want to break out of the Scottish political cycle where elections become auctions. I will see your 1,000 extra nurses and raise you smaller class sizes.
Promises offered with eyes set firmly on election day but not a vision for the future.
Pledges made at heart for the politicians’ benefit, not the benefit of the people.
Education policy is not a party political plaything to be shaped by what polls best at any precise point in the electoral cycle. We cannot afford to take a sabbatical from education while we debate the referendum. If we do not act now, we shall fall behind.
So I want to set out a vision of Scottish education which will take more than one term to deliver. One that I will start but may not be able to finish.
But one, I pledge, I will set out a road map to by the time of the next Scottish election and ask the people of Scotland to join me on that journey.
At least four of our great universities shouldn’t just be in the top 100 in the world, they should be in the top 50.
To get there will take investment, sacrifice and innovation but that is the journey we should be on.
We will need to take tough choices and we will.
Our schools – primary and secondary – shouldn’t be just above average in Europe they should be in the top ten per cent in the world.
And our schools should be even more. They should be the hub of every community, where people of all ages can go, because education is open to all. Because schools are just where learning is found, it is where a community’s identity can be. We will engage not just with the education profession in this country but look at best practice around the world to see the best way of working. And we want you as educators as people with a passion for the power of education to help shape our thinking. For too long, educators have been reduced to stakeholders making a pitch for their territory, their institution, not expected to think, to demur or to address the broader consequences of policy choices elsewhere.
And there are so many questions?
Is £75 million a year to European students a price worth paying to keep a no-tuition fee policy for
Scottish students while our colleges are under attack? And service to the vulnerable?
Are reductions in classroom support, including teachers, a price worth paying for a freeze in the council tax?
Our aim? That in 20 years’ time Scottish politicians aren’t going round the world to see how it is done there, but so that the rest of the world comes here to see how we do it.
We must ensure that the best graduates see teaching as a profession on par with the best in business and commerce, and whose rewards are greater if not always financially.
And we must work harder. We are competing not with Kent but with Korea.
So many Scots took their education to Australia and Canada. Now Australian and Canadian schools achieve more than ours.
We must change that.
The best days of Scottish education cannot be behind us. The best days must be in the years to come.
Education – not a bucket to be filled but a fire to be lit.
A world leading education system. A Scotland true to its real traditions. A Scotland fit for the future. A Scotland true to itself once again.