David Watt explains the work of the Socialist Educational Association Scotland
Jimmy Reid’s rectorial speech of nearly fifty years ago continues to challenge the role of Scottish education. He spoke of the challenge of eradicating poverty, the place of communities and the negative centralising nature of national governments. He set an agenda not yet attained. In terms of the purpose of education, he nailed it: ‘If automation and technology is accompanied as it must be with full employment, then the leisure time available to humanity will be enormously increased. If that is so, then our whole concept of education must change. The whole object must be to educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession’.
Part of the role of the Socialist Educational Association Scotland (SEAS) is to attempt to persuade the Scottish Labour Party to adopt education policies that will respond to that ongoing challenge. Reid used the language of social justice and applied human rights terms to education, saying; ‘I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It is a social crime. The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the precondition for everyone’s development’.
In 2000, the Scottish Parliament placed into Scots law the human rights version of Reid’s words with the purpose of education provided by local authorities to be for ‘the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential’. The SEAS argues that the human rights agenda can now go further and not just the individual must benefit through education. Social justice demands that realising the potential of the individual must also be measured by the potential for the benefit to all.
Recently, the SEAS has been active in contributing to Scottish Labour’s policy consultation arguing for better outcomes for all involved in education and for achieving a more socially just and inclusive society in Scotland. This requires collaborative and collective work within communities. Labour must ask: ‘Is Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) changing the whole concept of education? Is Scottish Education educating people for life and the benefit of society, or is it still heading down the cul de sac of passing exams for personal benefit?’
A new form of municipal socialism must position councils at the heart of a social justice agenda working cooperatively throughout local communities. The SEAS recognises the potential of more curricular decisions at schools level and the development of good practice arising from flexibility in CfE. A school’s autonomy needs to be accountable within its community but also through the democratically elected local authority. Holyrood has to avoid bureaucratic and centralised approaches. Jimmy Reid’s view, even decades ago was: ‘The power of local authorities has been and is being systematically undermined. The justification I can see for local government is as a counter-balance to the centralised character of national government’. It is just as bad today.
The SEAS argues for education to provide a platform for change, becoming ‘lifelong learning towards the inclusive society based on values of social justice and challenging disadvantage’, in contrast to a stagnating and struggling education system under the present Scottish Government which is fixated on testing children and attempting to marginalise democratically elected local authorities.
SEAS calls for early investment throughout Scotland in high-quality child development provision to match that already provided in many local authority nursery schools and early years centres. Early childhood development experiences would benefit from disputes around staff structures, education, training and experience being resolved by focusing on the creation of the best provision to meet children’s wrap-around learning needs and care. In the early years, focus should be on learning through play rather than schooling and readiness for school.
The SEAS argues that the social justice agenda must focus on inclusiveness and equality in education. If Scotland is serious about incorporating human rights for children, then children or young people with disabilities or in care cannot continue to be discriminated against. The failure to provide adequate staffing, resources and planning has strengthened the argument against the presumption of mainstreaming. Inclusive education is a vital part of educational change. It will need to be planned for, resourced and implemented much more proactively.
Embedding equality education has allegedly been a priority since 2014, but tackling stereotyping and challenging discrimination through equality education is still not embedded in CfE. SEAS argues for equality issues to be in the mainstream topics of every subject area as with gender stereotyping but also across characteristics of belief, social class, disability, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Finally, the SEAS is keen to see the end of private schooling. The promotion of inequality and social injustice is buttressed by selective schooling based on social status and money. Private schools have been requesting and receiving support from public bodies, but the SNP Government refuses to own up to the extent of support. The SEAS resolution carried by Scottish Labour’s 2019 conference demands the end of direct subsidy by taxpayers and an end to indirect support by various resources of public bodies and government.
For the SEAS, education is more than school, college or university attainment. We have to provide better than simply a personal meritocratic approach. Education has a role in tackling all forms of inequality but the cause of increasing numbers of children living in poverty is obviously not primarily educational. Rebuilding a fair society can only be carried out by coordinated action at national and local government level focused through community action. However, education has a vital role in the changes that society needs and the SEAS regrets that promoting social justice and tackling inequality is not yet at the centre of the educational purpose for Scottish Labour.
David Watt is the Secretary of the Socialist Educational Association Scotland (https://seascotland.blog), the educational affiliate of the Scottish Labour Party.