Giving the Deputy First Minister responsibility for education is meant to send a message that this service is a priority for the new government. So what might we expect in the coming years?
Let's start at the beginning, with early years. The SNP manifesto commitment is:
"By 2021, we will almost double the availability of free early learning and childcare to 30 hours a week for all 3 and 4 year olds and vulnerable 2 year olds – a policy that will save families over £3,000 per child per year. To deliver this expansion, we will invest an additional £500 million a year by 2021 and create 600 new early learning and childcare centres, with 20,000 more qualified staff."
By any standards this is a big and welcome commitment, even over a five year period. The first delivery challenge is budgetary. Is £500m really enough to pay for 600 new centres and 20,000 staff? By my calculations this will barely cover the cost of employing qualified staff at todays pay rates. Then you have the capital and revenue costs of the new buildings, which is difficult to calculate, but will be huge. Perhaps it's a good thing the former finance cabinet secretary is now running education - he will need to do the 'loaves and fishes' miracle with this one!
What the manifesto doesn't say is how and who will be delivering this massive expansion. As the UNISON Scotland early years manifesto sets out, this is best delivered as a public service with fairly paid staff. Working with children is not just about the time spent with each child. Workers also have to plan, evaluate, and assess learning and keep detailed records of each child’s progress. There needs to be wider recognition of what these posts involve and adequate funding for the staffing levels and hours of work required to do the job.
Schools and closing the attainment gap is the next challenge. There has been some ridicule from opposition parties over John Swinney’s call for some time, given they have been in power for nine years. However, he does at least bring a fresh pair of eyes to the challenge and as UNISON has pointed out in our submission on the Education Bill, the attainment gap is rooted in our unequal society, not simply what happens in schools.
The specific proposals in the SNP manifesto have a very Tory/New Labour feel about them - testing, targets, and funding directly to schools bypassing local authorities. Sadly, there is little evidence that these approaches have worked elsewhere and it is noticeable that the advocates of academies and free schools in England are now calling for larger groupings of schools, as large as 25 schools. That looks remarkably like a local educational authority to me!
What is sensible is the plan to renew the focus on literacy, numeracy, health and well-being – targeting support on areas with significant areas of deprivation. Investing £750m ‘in the next parliament’ in the Attainment Fund and £100m from the Council Tax changes will be welcome - even if the extra bureaucracy of head teachers having to administer it isn’t. There is also a welcome recognition that teacher numbers are not the only solution – classroom assistants get a mention after years of cuts. School libraries also deserve greater recognition.
The biggest structural change is the proposal to create ‘new educational regions to decentralise management and support’. That sounds like tautology to me, but we can only assume it means regionalising education authorities, while allocating more resources directly to schools. This will be backed up by ‘more focused and frequent’ school inspections.
The next stage in the education journey is colleges. After years of cuts, regionalisation and 2000 job losses; the commitment is to, ‘maintain the number of full-time equivalent college places that lead to employment’. There is an understandable view in the sector that they have paid the price for extra university funding. However, there should at least be a bit of stability going forward.
For universities the focus is on improving access for students from the most deprived backgrounds. Free tuition is the right policy and enjoys cross party support, but it has done little to improve access. They will adopt the recommendations of the Widening Access Commission and set a new target of 20 per cent of students entering university to be from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds by 2030. Reviewing bursary support for students in colleges and universities will be an important part of achieving that target.
It is pretty clear that the new government’s education focus is on early years and schools. Educational inequality starts young, certainly before school age, so that is the right priority. The row over the Named Person scheme is frankly a distraction from more important issues. The big challenges will be financial, particularly in early years where the ambition doesn’t match the budget. In schools there will be significant scepticism that the outlined structural reform will contribute to the solutions, but targeting additional funds where it is most needed, is the right approach.