jimtoggleJim O’Neill says it’s time to give teachers a break from constant unproductive reform, and he welcomes Kezia Dugdale’s proposal for a federal United Kingdom.


I raised this concern the last time a poor report on Scottish education was published. Now, in the eleventh year of the SNP’s responsibility for our children’s education, the PISA world report from the OECD has shown that our education, particularly in maths, science and reading, has worsened further. We can no longer even say that at least we are better than England.

So, what is John Swinney’s response? That we need even more radical reform! This at a time when teachers are rebelling against the extent of workload engendered by the Curriculum for Excellence – or should it be called the Curriculum for Averageness?

More radical reform is the default position of every education minister, of every party, that I have ever known over 40 years of involvement in education; from Frank McElhone (Lab), to Michael Forsyth (Tory) to the run of short-lived SNP education ministers now including John Swinney. Not one of them has spent time in a classroom, except as a pupil, yet they all think they know what is best for education in Scotland. Maybe they all had teachers they did not like!

Teacher overload impacts directly on the quality of the education they can deliver. If they are continually being told to change the system, usually before the previous system has bedded in, this will lead to confusion and workload issues. I remember, as a teacher in the 1970s, having to teach two different systems at the same time, traditional Highers and Alternative Highers, while trying to respond to the Munn and Dunning Reports which fundamentally changed the system of working from S1-4. This (and the poor pay) was what got me active in teacher unions and I have been calling for time for teachers to breathe and to bed-in new systems ever since.

It doesn’t seem that this is going to happen. While refusing to condemn the failed new ideas brought forward by previous SNP education ministers, Nicola Sturgeon, at First Minister’s Questions, listed all the new proposals that John Swinney will take forward. Whether this is the magic sponge that will revive the once great Scottish education system remains to be seen. For me, I’m not holding my breath.

I am becoming a little tired of those commentators on the so-called left who continue to disparage Scottish Labour and particularly the leadership of Kezia Dugdale. Many of these are people who gave a massive welcome to her election, but as soon as she failed to progress their often narrow agendas, they abandoned her and have also abandoned any hope of the Labour Party in Scotland rising again. However, recently, Kezia has shown that Scottish Labour has something distinctly different to say and can hold the SNP government to account better than any other opposition party.

Over the rail fiascos, it has been Labour who forced an apology from Ms Sturgeon to the much abused passengers of Abellio/Scotrail, who forced the publication of the 247 point improvement plan, and who have now adopted the Co-operative Party/ASLEF plan for a People’s Scotrail. They are also in discussion with their sister party on how this can be adapted to bus services too. In this, Kez has shown real leadership, not least in her performances against Nicola Sturgeon in the chamber.

Now, I am pleased to say, she has adopted a proposal that I and many others have been calling for over many years – a federal structure for Britain. She is arguing that, if neither the Tories nor the SNP want to set up a Constitutional Convention into a project that will disturb their cosy little positions, Labour should set up its own Constitutional Convention.

Of course, this will entail a massive change to the governance of the UK, with extensive devolution to the English regions and the replacement of the House of Lords with a body representative of the countries and regions of our United Kingdom; but surely that is better than the current position, and brings decision making much closer to the people. This would be a real exercise in subsidiarity. We should now all get behind this approach and promote it throughout the party. Well done, Kezia.

Finally, I cannot stop without mentioning Humza Yousaf. Humza has been caught driving his car without insurance, but there seems to have been a collective brushing of this under the carpet. I know what reaction I would get if I said to the judge “Sorry your Honour, it has all been an honest mistake caused by the breakup of my marriage”. The response would be that it is my responsibility to ensure that I am insured at all times. This is a criminal offence and, in a more honourable age, would have been followed by the resignation of the Minister, especially if he was Minister for Transport. Sadly, this is no longer the case, and Humza Yousaf continues to fail the people of Scotland in his post. Grrrr!