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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Ross Martin: How our teachers became a class apart

Published in the Scotsman, 26/5/2011

Reviews, deals, fudges and poisoned chalices, the history of how we run our schools is an unedifying series of mistakes.

As we await the outcome of the McCormac review into the McCrone deal for teachers that was a result of a McConnell fudge after he had been handed a poisoned chalice by McLeish, one is entitled to wonder in the end what many a Mc will Mac.

If this bewildering array of political and professorial involvement in shaping Scotland's teaching profession was subject to external assessment, the results would make grim reading indeed. A 23 per cent pay hike was conceded in a classic short-term political fix, achieving nothing noticeable in terms of improvement to either the quality of the learning experience or the performance of our pupils.

In fact, many would argue, as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA) appears to have done in its evidence to this latest McCormac review, that the teaching profession has gone backwards. Clock-watching in the classroom has become the norm as part of the teaching unions' precious 35-hour week. Meanwhile, the dinosaur leaderships spend their time squabbling in the staffrooms over who is the most macho, as the world moves on around them.

Our schools need fresh ideas, an energetic impetus. They need to be given the confidence to innovate, the freedom to design and deliver the Curriculum for Excellence. They need to analyse their own performance, compare it with others operating in similar circumstances and develop ways in which to address identified shortcomings. They need to strengthen links with communities, reflect the changing nature of their environment and encourage far greater participation from parents and the wider public too.

When teaching unions complain about workload, how can they seriously suggest that no-one else is qualified to impart professional knowledge, to transfer time-served skills or to support educational development of young people? When rural communities campaign against school closures, why aren't they encouraged and enabled to take a more active role in the running of their school? The Scottish school system is broken, and after more than ten years of fiddling, it's time our parliament set about fixing it.

Here are a few items for the new intake of MSPs to consider for inclusion in the policy curriculum, many tried and tested either here at home or in other, more successful, school systems abroad.

Let's start with a change the teaching unions actually agree with - fewer education authorities. It is simply not possible to justify separate authorities across Ayrshire, or Dunbartonshire or Renfrewshire, or indeed in many other parts of the country where recognised community boundaries were cut not from an educational perspective but as part of an earlier, equally unsuccessful political fix.

Next, as the higher education sector faces an unprecedented funding challenge, can we really justify the treading of water, re-teaching and duplication, of first-year university and sixth-year school? Of course not, one of them has to go.

The school calendar is a complicated farce, with last month demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that whoever or whatever it was designed for, it certainly wasn't hard-working pupils or their parents. In most parts of Scotland, pupils spent a maximum of seven days in school in April. We desperately need to move towards four equal terms of ten weeks.

This simple switch has huge potential for enriching the educational experience of our youngsters, even more so if the so-called asymmetric week is adopted, where Wednesday afternoons are designated for a wide range of supporting activities. Sports, arts, drama, outdoor education, community participation, swimming lessons, learning about road safety, healthy living, preparing for international exchanges, all this and much more are possible.

In addition, and in order to ensure that the educational experience is well grounded, we need to engage a far wider cross-section of the community, enabling accountants, architects, civil and electrical engineers, fashion and graphic designers, lawyers, scientists and planners to share their professional experience and act as role models for our youngsters, exciting them about the world in which they work.

Either on the "asymmetric afternoon", or elsewhere in a generally more accessible timetable, ten-week blocks of professional practice or tutoring in the trades should become the norm for Scotland's schools. Scotland's got talent, so how can our schools harness it? Associate teacher status could easily be arranged, ticking all the teaching quality boxes of the General Teaching Council and the pupil safety issues of Disclosure Scotland.

Whilst we are on the subject of community involvement, when will a rural school be run by its parent body with support from its education authority, instead of the other way round? There are plenty of successful models for operating key public services, including co-ops, social enterprises and mutuals. Why should our schools be any different?

As we see the move towards greater community control of the social and economic issues that matter locally, for example football fans owning their clubs, food-co-ops developing local production, the generation of significant financial benefits for communities through wind farm ownership, the lack of parental involvement in our school system appears all the more anachronistic.

As regards wider parental involvement, bring back the school boards. Originally conceived as vehicles for opting out, these dedicated groups of parents, teachers and co-opted members of the community were actually beginning to perform a valuable function, especially in Scotland's towns, strengthening the traditionally weak link between many schools and the communities they seek to serve.

School boards were abolished in that puerile political atmosphere that has hung over our parliament like an Icelandic ash cloud, darkening the atmosphere and closing MSPs' minds to clear, blue sky thinking. They were dumped not because they were a bad idea but because they were a Tory idea. Simples.

Consigned to the classroom wastepaper basket, along with league tables, school boards were the last real hope for parental involvement in the teaching and learning programme. Bring them back, dust them down, re-design them to each serve a cluster - a single secondary and its associated primary schools.

League tables, also abolished, were misleading and practically useless as indicators of performance. We have a perfectly acceptable, easily understood, robust alternative that has been hidden from public view for far too long. Clumsily entitled the School Characteristic Index, it allows us all to compare and contrast the performance of your local school with others of a similar size, operating in similar circumstances on similar budgets. Equally, the Relative Ratings metric is an invaluable tool that can be used to determine faculty, department or even individual teacher success in adding value to a pupil's performance. Why don't we publish this invaluable information for parents?

Just as the electorate has an uncanny ability to ensure its collective will is translated into the colour of government, almost regardless of the electoral system, so do parents have that sixth sense of how to create a good school. First on any parent's list, backed up by sound educational research, are truly comprehensive catchment areas. This beats all other factors, including shiny new buildings and smaller class sizes, hands down.

This is especially important in our cities, where high schools such as my alma mater in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh have become sink schools, stripped of the enthusiastic learners who have aspirational, mobile parents. Schools, like the communities they serve, perform best with a well-balanced parent and pupil body that is part of a comprehensive catchment area.

So let's not kid ourselves that it is anything other than this critical factor that enables denominational secondary schools to so often outperform their mainstream neighbours.

Roman Catholic schools have other advantages, such as many of their pupils being bussed in relative comfort to school each day. They also operate a quasi-selective entrance system and can more easily expel unruly pupils, sending them to their local high school.

It is, however, the comprehensive mix of their catchment areas that set them aside from the majority of Scotland's struggling secondary schools.

Which brings us neatly to the final suggestion, sin bins. Parliamentarians who have been behaving badly are expelled from the chamber whilst it is expected that our more energetic pupils are kept in the classroom. Discuss.

Ross is the CSPP policy director.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Ross Martin: The red rose has to go, for starters

Published in the Scotsman, 18/5/2011

Although a surprise to most, the election result was inevitable. Ok, the scale of the SNP victory was a shock, but beating Labour was entirely predictable. This wasn’t a political tsunami, suddenly rearing up from an electoral earthquake. This defeat was a long slow burn that began at the very dawn of devolution.

It is one of the great ironies of our time that Labour led the mass civic movement that campaigned for and designed devolution, then showed little sense of political purpose, once in power. What difference, exactly, did any of the Labour led Administrations really make to Scotland, when splashing the huge amounts of cash granted them by GB’s Treasury?

No big policy ideas. No coherent policy programme. No examples of real, sustained public service or societal change. Ok, No Smoking, but that was the whole Scottish Parliament working together to deliver a cultural change. That policy caught the mood of the Nation. It may even have led it. It was, sadly, an isolated example.

The Labour-led “Executives” wrote no exciting new policy chapters into the post devolution story of Scotland. Sure, they had some solid achievements; democratisation of the old Scottish Office functions, keeping the ship of state steady as power was transferred from Westminster. But what then? Nothing.

No clear message. No policy direction. No Vision of a new Scotland, different due to the power of devolution. “Scottish solutions to Scottish problems”, where? The lack of inspiration was breathtaking. After being carried into the courtyard of the temporary home of the Parliament, the Scottish Labour Leadership began to fail before it even got started.

It didn’t lead. It wasn’t Scottish. It couldn’t even call itself Labour, as it hadn’t worked out quite what that meant in the post devolution context. It now clearly needs, as it did then, a fundamental, root and branch review to determine not only policy purpose and political direction, but also crucially, its character. Scottish Labour has lost its soul, and with it the trust of the Scottish people.

That bond of trust, painfully built up throughout the Thatcher years, was broken a little more by each successive Scottish Labour Leader in key decisions, culminating in Labour’s catastrophe of Gray’s crushing defeat. Each time the increasingly sophisticated Scottish electorate signposted its chosen political direction, either at a Holyrood, Council or Westminster election, the Scottish Labour leadership couldn’t, or wouldn’t read the runes. The case for the prosecution is easily made.

After the first election, Donald Dewar missed the moment to completely reshape Scottish politics, by not including the UK's first Green Parliamentarian, Robin Harper, in his team. An even bigger symbolic change away from the much criticised control-freak political management of the time would have been to reward that election's biggest winner, Denis Canavan, with the power to actually achieve something. Donald didn’t.

Leave aside the missed opportunity to bring together a ‘parliament of all the talents’ when the much promised sprinkling of celebrity, business voice and key characters from civic Scotland were shut out of the party’s selection process alongside some of Scottish Labour’s brightest talent, left wondering what they had to do to secure even a run at election.

Henry McLeish missed the next chance to embrace the emerging politics when a red-green advance ushered in over a dozen colourful MSPs. The opportunity to do things differently was ignored in favour of the continuation of the monochromatic managerial politics so beloved of the Scottish Labour Leaderships of the time.

Then, worst of all, following the “muddle, not a fiddle” demise of his predecessor, who had been sucked into the Westminster expenses scandal that continues to outrage the electorate, Jack McConnell ignored the democratic desire of the people, to see the promised new cross-party, participative politics finally emerge.

Not only that, he also went out of his way to carve out much of the remaining talent from his own Labour team in a classic night of the long knives. This lowest common denominator, machine approach to politics was only ever going to end in one place, destructive defeat at the ballot box. First, at Westminster and then here at Holyrood.

In Scotland, the date of destiny arrived on 5th May 2011. After a campaign so devoid of purpose, other than to stick it to the Tories one more time, the Scottish people voted, overwhelmingly, for real change. Scottish Labour lost, all across the country. The sheer scale of the defeat means that there is now no such thing as a safe Labour seat in Scotland. Middle Scotland wreaked havoc for Labour.

It is all too easy to characterise the Labour defeat as a simple swing from the UK coalition partners, especially the Lib Dems, straight to the SNP. Just as many of them did after the first defeat in 2007, some Labour MSPs have tried to argue that this is an aberration, and that the party’s vote held up. Perhaps, but it held up to a level that saw the first Labour defeat, back in 2007. Labour lost then, and lost again this time. The democratic disconnect looks set to continue awhile.

So how can Scottish Labour turn the tide of public opinion? Firstly, by practicing what it preaches. As it chooses its new Leader, it must show by its own internal actions that it is in tune with the mood of the electorate. It’s time to put its organisation where its mouth is, and demonstrate what “devolution-max” actually means, starting with the Labour Party itself.

Just as Kinnock, then Smith and finally Blair did, turning around the UK Labour Party before seeking to turn around the country, so must Scottish Labour demonstrate the next steps for devolution within the party, before presenting that as a way forward for Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party must be all three of these things: Scottish, Labour and a proper political Party.

That means, as a democratic de-minimis; one-member-one-vote, complete control over devolved policy, relocating its party HQ, with a new team of politically savvy staffers, close to the Scottish Parliament to demonstrate real change. Oh yes, replacing the red English rose is a pre-requisite too. The Scottish Labour Leader must be what it says on the tin. Then, and only then, can their policy debate begin.

It is crystal clear from the election result that the “Devolution Default” position of the electorate is the opposite of that enshrined in the Scotland Act. The Scottish people want all policy devolved, unless there’s a very good reason not to, rather than the reverse which currently persists. The new Scotland Act must right this fundamental wrong, before any debate about Independence-Lite or Devolution-Max can seriously begin.

One potential route for Scottish Labour, and indeed all other parties, defeated or not, is to develop place-based policy that really matters to people, connecting to communities all across Scotland.

In the places people live and work; in our Cities, where Labour has lost control, in all but Glasgow, in our Towns, where the regional electoral battle was won and lost, and in the workplace, or at least where the majority of many communities still earn their wage, Scotland’s Public Services. In all these places, Labour desperately needs a new narrative.

In our Cities, Labour needs to have big ideas and bold policy initiatives. The other parties are engaging with the development of the Cities agenda, as are Labour at the local level, but the Scottish leadership simply doesn’t get it.

For example, it was under Labour that we saw the congestion charging ballot hit the buffers in Edinburgh, the Aberdeen Bypass stalled in a procedural traffic-jam and the modernisation of the Subway in Glasgow delayed. These economically essential items of transport infrastructure should all have been completed in those first two terms. They weren’t even started.

And what about the Trams, started but not finished? Well, that’s an all-party story for another day.

Across our Towns, if we had seen a Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) that matched, say, the ballooning spend on the Holyrood building project, pound for pound, it would have developed the physical fabric of Scottish life. Not only would this have prepared our town centres for the economic shocks to come, but may well have saved Labour from the electoral shocks that ripped through many of them.

One real positive from the dying days of the old Executive was the legislative framework for Business Improvement Districts, but again, like the creation of the TCRF, this was an initiative that required genuine cross-party continuity. The Bill began life in 2006 and was then implemented by the SNP Government after the 2007 election.

When Scotland voted decisively for not only the return of the Scottish Parliament but also, significantly, in favour of conferring upon it some measure of tax-raising power, the signal was clear; power with a purpose. The problem was the Scottish Labour leadership had no narrative, no route map, no real idea of what to use the power of the parliament for.

Ross Martin is the Policy Director for the CSPP and a former Labour councillor

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Clegg Reveals House of Lords White Paper

Deputy PM Nick Clegg today revealed the coalition govt's plans for a radical reform of the House of Lords. Clegg emphasised throughout his speech that these were draft plans and the Government were open to alternative views on the Bill.

The key proposals are:

- The first democratic elections for a new chamber would take place in 2015
- The upper house will be made of 300 full time members
- The bill makes provision for 80% of members to be elected with the remaining 20% appointed independently.
- The 60 appointed members would sit as cross benchers not as representatives of a political party.
- The White Paper also includes a provision for a wholly elected second chamber.

To read the Bill click here.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The second decade of devolution - majoritarian rule?

We’re still waiting on three regions to declare its results but it’s official. The SNP have secured an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament with 65 votes. The inconceivable has happened. It is truly significant, a unique moment in post-devolution Scotland.

The nature of Scottish politics, not to mention how our Parliamentary processes will function, will irrevocably change.

No one expected this, not even the most optimistic of Nationalists. The AMS electoral system was deliberately chosen to prevent the occurrence of majority Government and yet the second decade of devolution has delivered that very outcome.

As things stand Labour have 29 seats, the Tories 9, the Lib Dems 4 and the Greens 1. Remember, only a few months ago the SNP had only one more seat than Labour.

The SNP success, and its ability to attract anti-coalition sentiment, is rightly the main talking point. They ran an ambitious and positive campaign with consistent core messages, for e.g. the reindustrialisation of Scotland, free education etc. And, of course, the Presidential nature of the campaign utilised their biggest asset - Alex Salmond.

Equally important, however, is the catastrophic demise of the Lib Dems and Labour (see previous blog). We all expected the Lib Dems to suffer in this election due to the on-going unpopularity of the UK coalition Government.

Yet, no one could have possibly predicted that the election would result in the Lib Dems having only two directly elected constituent MSPs, both of which are Island based. That’s right, the Lib Dems have no directly elected constituent MSP from the mainland.

It is an astonishing turnaround but more than it clearly demonstrates the depth of animosity still felt towards the Conservatives in Scotland. And yet paradoxically, the Thatcherite scaremongering by the Labour party was entirely ineffective.

Scottish elections, it appears, are strange beasts.

The SNP Heartlands?

Going to bed early on Holyrood election night (to get up early) was always a controversial strategy but in many ways it was a fitting end to a sleepy campaign in my constituency (Motherwell & Wishaw).

The dominance of Labour in this area is well known. No one thought it could change. No one. They were right, but only just.

Labour had an existing majority of 5,938 with 48.1% of the vote when the former First Minister Jack McConnell won the seat in 2007.

And today that majority has been reduced to only 587 with John Pentland winning the seat with 43.8% of the vote. That’s a massive 10.2% swing from Labour to SNP.

Elsewhere in the heartlands it was a similar yet unexpected story with the Labour vote collapsing. John Mason took the Glasgow Shettleston constituency for the SNP with an extraordinary 12.6% swing from Labour’s front bench stalwart Frank McAveety.

The SNP’s James Dornan took the Glasgow Cathcart constituency, Sandra White took the Glasgow Kelvin constituency from another Labour front bencher Pauline McNeill and Bill Butler secured the Glasgow Anniesland constituency.

The “political tsunami” continued with the loss of East Kilbride, Hamilton and Airdrie and the subsequent departure of heavy hitters such as Andy Kerr and Tom McCabe. In Hamilton the swing to the SNP was 11%, 6.6% in East Kilbride & 5.5% in Airdrie where Alex Neil won 50% of the vote.

This is a new epoch; the tectonic political plates are shifting. We could be looking at an overall SNP majority in an electoral system that was designed to prevent majorities.

One thing we do know is this: these are Labour’s heartlands no more.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Vote Yes to AV

Following the twists and turns of the AV referendum campaign has been depressing. Thorougly so. I never thought the campaign would solely focus on the subject matter (referendums never do), but I never expected the intensity of mudslinging and blatant inaccuracies that emanated from the No Camp.

AV will lead to more coalitions; it will further disenfranchise the British electorate with more deals done behind closed doors; and it will lead to more hung parliaments. None of these claims are true.

Our position is clear. If we have an opportunity to change the anachronistic UK electoral system we have to take it. AV isn't perfect nor is it proportional, but it is a positive change.

The referendum isn't about Nick Clegg or the UK Coalition Government. It is about whether or not AV should replace First Past the Post as the UK's electoral system. There has been an incredible amount of mudslinging in this debate so make sure you know the facts by clicking here.

Ideas 91 -100

91. Single Public Authorities for our island areas.

We need Single Public Authorities for our island areas that embed local democracy, deliver efficient and transparent service delivery and promote community coherence.

Click here to read our report that was commissioned by the island councils.

92. Change building design and regulations to encourage better use of 'garage' space from start.

93. Implement SPP immediately, regardless of status of local Development Plan.

94. Develop links with policy teams in other legislatures.

95. Develop a public sector student sponsorship programme.

We’ve been banging on about the need for (much) more employment routes into the public sector for Scotland’s talented graduates. Local government, in particular, has a lot of ground to make up.

Another solution, and perhaps a different way to fund some student’s education, is to develop a sponsorship programme.

For example, councils run a recruitment drive targeting students who have completed the first year of their degree. The candidates they like the look of - i.e. their application and interview performance - undertake one week of work experience.

The successful candidates get the remaining 2-3 years of their degree paid for; receive work related learning during the summer months; and after graduating (contingent on good exam performance, say minimum 2:1) join the council’s graduate programme for 2 years.

96. Designate a zone around polling stations for election posters.

Instead of plastering posters everywhere!

97. Create a cross-party position in the Scottish Government’s cabinet.

The next Parliament will likely contain five parties and one independent. Each party has different strengths, different personalities. Watching the often acrimonious TV debates you could be forgiven for thinking that the ideological divides between the parties (particularly between Labour and the SNP) are unbridgeable.

Yet, for all their differences they also share a lot in common - all parties are broadly social democratic. So here’s an idea. Why don’t we create a cross-party position in the Scottish Government’s cabinet that rewards the performance of a certain candidate during the election? It could be, for example, Patrick Harvie as Environment Minister or Annabel Goldie as the Minister for Public Service Reform

The position would be elected by MSPs as a free vote with the one proviso: they have to vote for a candidate from a different party.

98. Introduce workplace car parking levies in major towns to help fund town centre improvements.

99. Encourage co-operative competition between election teams (e.g. by sharing leaflets.

100. Implement CSPP Reshaping Scotland jigsaw puzzle.

After the election our PSR work takes a different direction. We are going to produce a jigsaw puzzle to describe our vision for Scotland’s public services.
Stay tuned for more.

Ideas 81-90

81. Use social networking tools such as patient opinion and mypolice to help inform policy debate.

The 2011 SP election has illustrated clearly that how we engage and debate is changing. Indeed, twitter has had its very own virtual campaign.

The next logical step is to inform the development and formulation of public policy via social networking tools. Already we have exciting innovations from the likes of mypolice.

82. Charity boxes should be Scottish designed, branded and given a new generic name.

83. Introduce Congestion Charging for Aberdeen to fund the AWPR.

84. Name and shame persistent offenders in the court sections of local newspapers.

85. Create rail station enterprise hubs as an investment partnership.

86. Change building design and regulations to encourage better use of 'garage' space from start.

87. Establish stronger links between our cities and the world-wide cities movement.

88. Create an international network of graduate ambassadors.

A novel way to export Scotland’s greatest asset - our people.

89. Freeze all inactive Major Growth Areas (secondary school sized).

90. Create a student quarter in Glasgow City Centre.