One of the central elements in John Swinney's grand plan to reform Scottish education has been the establishment of a Scottish Education Council. In a press release announcing the membership, it is claimed that: 'The council will be a forum for frank and open discussion about what is working in education and where improvement is required. It will provide advice and guidance and oversee progress [in] implementing improvement priorities.' Mr Swinney is quoted as saying that: 'Rather than just talking about raising standards in education, the new council will deliver improvements.'
It might have been expected that, to advance this agenda, some people from outside the charmed circle of the educational establishment would have been invited to contribute to the deliberations of the council. Regrettably, however, it is dominated by the usual suspects. There are places for the top officials from the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Education Scotland, the General Teaching Council, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Association of Directors of Education and School Leaders Scotland.
The heads of the new regional collaboratives (all of whom just happen to be directors of education in local authorities) are also beneficiaries of the latest example of government patronage. The chair of the National Parent Forum is on the list and two young people (as yet unnamed) are promised a place. No classroom teacher is included. As for anyone who might have been considered a 'wild card,' able to advance innovative ideas which might challenge the vested interests of existing institutions, forget it. The disappointing conclusion to be drawn is that this will be yet another opportunity for the traditional policy community to recycle pedestrian ideas and defend their corners.
But perhaps there is method in Mr Swinney's apparent madness. He is to chair the new council and, despite his claim that current practices must change, he does not really want to be confronted by people who might question his own vision of the brave new world. He knows that the culture of Scottish education has for many years been deeply conformist and it will make his task easier if that continues. None of the usual suspects is likely to subject the cabinet secretary to the sharp interrogation that is really needed. They have been house-trained in the politics of compliance and can be relied upon to limit their contributions to marginal comments of no great significance. The centralisation of Scottish education, masquerading as a devolution of power to headteachers, will proceed apace.
I can well understand Kezia Dugdale's desire to take a break from the nest of vipers that is the Scottish Labour Party. Despite all the 'comradely' talk about unity and solidarity, the people's party has substantial form when it comes to both back- and chest-stabbing. Just look at the list of leaders who have been ousted after a short time – Henry McLeish, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont and Ms Dugdale herself. It will be interesting to see how long the new leader, Richard Leonard, survives. His close links with Jeremy Corbyn should probably ensure that he lasts at least until the next UK general election.
I happen to know someone who taught Kezia Dugdale when she attended Harris Academy in Dundee. He tells me she was a delightful and very able pupil and, although not a Labour voter himself, he was pleased to see her early success in politics. It is questionable, however, whether her decision to take part in the 'reality' television show, 'I'm a celebrity – get me out of here,' shows good political judgement.
Already she has been subject to criticism on the grounds that her priority should be to represent her constituents on the serious matters facing Scotland, not 'faffing around' (as one trade union spokesman put it) on a trashy TV show. The possibility of suspension has been mentioned, an increasingly popular sanction in all the main parties. It is reported that Ms Dugdale will donate her parliamentary salary for the period of her absence from Holyrood to charity but, as far as I am aware, the fee she will receive for her participation has not been disclosed.
In my fantasy dictatorship, I would consign all 'celebrities' to a small offshore island, with no means of communication to the mainland. They would be supplied with basic necessities (water, food, clothing, shelter) but would have no opportunity to inflict their 'personalities' on other people, apart from their fellow islanders. That should lead to some lively (but mercifully unrecorded) conflicts. After a time, they might learn to live with each other in a degree of harmony and become something approximating to normal human beings, without the need to seek attention all the time.
Every year, as a treat or punishment (depending on your perspective), a cable link to the island would be activated and they would be required to watch a programme chaired by Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig or Jonathan Ross. It would be a new twist on aversion therapy. Depending on their response, they might be considered for parole, subject to a rigorous series of psychological tests to determine whether their narcissism was under control.
It would be a kindness if Kezia were to be eliminated in the early stages of the programme.
I put the finishing touches to an after-dinner speech I will be giving later this week. It is the third time I have carried out this task for the same organisation, so I shall have to be careful not to recycle any old material. In the current politically correct climate, I shall also have to avoid saying anything that might be construed as 'inappropriate'. That shouldn't be too difficult. Saucy sallies and dodgy double-entendres are not really my style.
With these constraints in mind, I have decided to adopt a twin-track strategy. I shall start with some light humour, directed mainly against myself. Self-mockery is generally more acceptable to an audience than satire they might feel is aimed in their direction. But I don't want my remarks to be bland and lacking in substance. In any case, I suspect I have been invited again in the hope that I might say something a bit controversial and provocative. Thus, in the serious part of my talk, I will refer to issues which I think the organisation needs to address. At this point I will carefully observe the expressions and body language of those present, ready to adjust my tone if I sense that a lynch mob may be forming.
Getting the balance right between entertainment and challenge is not easy. I still recall the look of stern disapproval I received from the head of a local government department as I urged staff to 'interrogate official policies.' My contribution was well received by most of the audience but, unsurprisingly, a request for a repeat performance has not been forthcoming. The culture of Scottish local government remains rigidly hierarchical, with deference being more valued than a capacity for independent thinking.
SR's partner organisation, the Young Programme charity, is looking to recruit an additional member of our creative team for the 2018 season. We organise courses of professional development for people in the early stages of their careers. These include the Young Scotland Programme, the Young England and Wales Programme, and the Young Ireland Programme. If you have an ability to communicate with young people, a thorough knowledge of current affairs, experience of chairing and facilitating discussion, and the freedom to commit to at least six residential events a year, each of three days' duration, you could well be the ideal person for this assignment. You would be paid a daily rate, and your travel and accommodation costs would be met by the Young Programme. Interested? Then the director of the Young Programme, Fiona MacDonald, would like to hear from you. Email her on email@example.com with your CV and a covering letter of application no later than Friday 8 December.