jimtoggleJim O’Neill says the only party in Holyrood that doesn’t think the SNP has failed on education for the last ten years is the SNP itself, and it’s time for a change of tack and an acknowledgement of failure from John Swinney.


On Wednesday 7 March all but one party at Holyrood agreed that the ten years of SNP government had been a record of unadulterated failure in education policy and implementation. This is a remarkable decision, since every party, from the left (who led the debate) to the right, and including the usual trusties, the Greens, took the same view of the SNP performance from Mike Russell to John Swinney and all the rest in between.

On a Labour motion, the MSPs rejected an SNP self-congratulatory amendment by 63 votes to 62 and then agreed the motion by the same margin. It is now clear that only the SNP think they are doing a good job in educating our children, although they are isolated in that belief. Nicola Sturgeon seemed to recognise that they needed to up their game on education after the election amid a slew of reports that the performance of Scottish children was going backwards despite the heroic efforts of Scotland’s teachers. She decided to put her “best Minister”, who had already failed as leader, and had a patchy record on government finance giving in to the austerity policies of the Tories, in charge of education.

So, what has John Swinney’s record been since he took over. He began by failing to head off industrial action by teachers, and then brought forward proposals including forcing head teachers to take their eyes off the quality ball by loading them with additional financial responsibilities. All of this was rejected by teachers and education commentators, resulting in the indefinite postponement of the promised Education Bill.

Turning to the nanny state proposal that parents were incapable of raising their own children and so every child needed a “named person” to look after their interests, he wasted lots of government money challenging a decision by the courts that it breached the human rights of the parents and children. He took it all the way to the Supreme Court but still lost. His response was that the defeat was a minor one and that the government would bring forward alternative proposals in short order. Now we find that the Named Persons bill has also been kicked into the long grass.

You would think that after all these failures the SNP government would get the message that the thrust of their policy was wrong. But no. “A’body’s wrang but oor Johnnie.” But this is no small matter. As a former teacher, a trade union official for teachers and having put three children through an education system that once was the envy of the world, I know that the future of our children and our country is at risk. We can no longer afford the bumbling of successive SNP education ministers. It is time to bring together experts from right across the spectrum to advise Parliament on where to go now. That is the first response that should come from Holyrood’s Education Committee. Let’s see what they do.

And now a word about the budget. Or rather two words. Ho hum. What a complete waste of time. Clearly the Chancellor, knowing that he had a real budget to deliver in the Autumn, had decided to postpone as many issues as he could get away with. The number of reviews, green papers, and other reconsiderations announced took up most of the speech, and the few actual decisions taken did nothing to help those on benefits or the “just managing” on in-work benefits, nor to help those forced to swallow their pride and stand in queues at food banks to feed their children.

Mind you, as predicted in this column a few weeks ago, he did find money to head off the business rates revolt. To great Tory cheers, he increased the Tory “living wage” to £7.50 at a time when the real living wage assessed for the Joseph Rowntree Trust is £10. He continued the “Tampon Tax”, which should be removed since women have no alternative but to pay it every month. However, a true Tory touch, he tried to disguise it as a contribution to organisations dedicated to protecting women and children from domestic violence.

And that was about all. We wait to see what Derek Mackay will do with the £350m of Barnett consequentials, although once again Hammond tried to package it as a great giveaway to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And, of course, his decision to break a manifesto promise and raise National Insurance on small entrepreneurs, even though everyone says they are the engine room of the economy, has typically come back to haunt him. The Daily Mail is aghast.

So, we have to wait until the Autumn, after the activation of Brexit, to find out where the man who John Crace of the Guardian has called “the Undertaker” is taking our economy. I canny wait.