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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Social Democracy alive and well?

I don’t talk enough here about my homeland – so I am glad to devote this post to an important policy issue in devolved Scotland. Melissa Benn is a name to conjure with in UK educational circles – her mother, Caroline Benn, was the most ardent campaigner for some 5 decades for good education for all; her father is the tireless socialist Tony Benn; and she carries on the family tradition in her role as a radical educational journalist. She had a platform at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival and has posted a thoughtful piece which points up some Scottish successes in the educational field which she considers are not getting the attention they deserve in England.  
The most immediate thing to strike a visitor from the English educational field is how very different the atmosphere and assumptions are on this subject north of the border. With its proud tradition of the "democratic intellect", long history of compulsory education and world-renowned universities, the Scots seem genuinely to value their school system.
Here one finds very little teacher-bashing and scant reference to market solutions to social problems. At the Edinburgh event, the overriding concern was how to improve access by poorer students to higher and further learning and keep universities free, despite considerable pressure from an unholy alliance of English newspapers and Scottish conservatives. There is a heartening and robust belief in publicly funded, publicly accountable high-quality education.
Is this perhaps the very reason we in England hear so little about Scotland's education system, bar some envious carping at its avoidance of tuition fees? While every fashionable free-schooler or educational conservative has rushed to bash underfunded Wales as proof of comprehensive failure, or bemoaned attempts in Northern Ireland to eliminate its outmoded selective system, there is little discussion of the evident strengths of the Scottish comprehensive system.
In fact, Scotland has deliberately rejected what (their Education Minister) Russell accurately labels the Germ (Global Education Reform Movement) approach so beloved of the coalition, with its commitment to privatisation, competition and deregulation.
He is rightly scathing of the "three initiatives before breakfast" policy-hyperactivity of the current English government. At the Edinburgh session he declared himself "stunned" at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Rigorous teacher training is at the heart of the Scottish approach, and there are plans, modelled upon the Finnish example, to require every teacher to possess a master's in addition to a first degree.
Scotland publishes no official league tables, although individual schools release their results. (Even Wales now publishes the results of secondary schools grouped into one of five bands.) The Scottish government is moving towards greater school self-evaluation and has, over the past decade, slowly rolled out a progressive "curriculum for excellence", in stark contrast to our own government's speedily devised, overly prescriptive and increasingly contested programmes for learning.
And it seems to be working. Results for Scottish highers, a formal examination taken between 16 and 19, have slowly climbed over the years and are up again in 2012, with no serious claims of grade inflation. From this year, pilot schemes will be rolled out, with the ultimate aim of each child learning two languages in addition to their own. And only last year, the Royal Society praised the high numbers of Scottish students – 49.7% – who study science to the higher levels, and suggested that the rest of the UK should emulate Scotland
in this regard
Scotland managed to keep its separate educational system even after the Treaty of Union with England of 1707 - so we have generally been spared the more mad of the English initiatives. However the development of the comprehensive school was something which took place in both parts of the kingdom.
The reestablishment in 1999 of the Scottish Parliament and Government has, however, given the distinctive nature of the Scottish directions in social policy a stronger legitimacy.
I am not a Scottish nationalist. The issue of Scottish independence was a live one at my school in the 1950s and, when I became active in local and Regional government in the 1970s and 1980s, the Scottish Nationalist party was always an electoral consideration. As, however, Conservative MPs were wiped out in Scotland in the 1980s, the legitimacy of the Thatcher regime was called in question by us all in Scotland (including the churches and professions) and a long (and consensual) constitutional process produced a Scottish Parliament and devolved powers for a Scottish Executive in 1999. 
New Labour’s policies attracted little respect in Scotland – despite the electoral support we gave to Bliar and Brown. 
And the crude neo-liberalism of the 2010 Lib-Con Coalition has increased the support for the apparently social-democratic core of the Scottish nationalist leadership. 
Hence the astonishing ease with which the Scottish Nationalist Party took power (despite the proportionate voting system) in 2011.  Just look at the lecture delivered in London earlier this year (at the Hugo Young Lecture) by the Government’s First Minister (Alex Salmond)
The Scottish Government's policies attempt to protect many values which would be dear to any post-war social democrat in these isles. For example, we have promoted what we call a living wage - £7.20 an hour. And we have made a conscious decision to provide certain core universal services, rights or benefits, some of which are no longer prioritised by political leaders elsewhere – such as free university tuition, free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies across the public sector
And looking at the problems of health reform now, I thank the heavens that Westminster's writ no longer runs in Scotland on health issues. But the looming issues of welfare reform exemplify why Scotland needs the powers to make our own policies to meet our own needs and values.
We do this because we believe that such services benefit the common weal. They provide a sense of security, well-being and equity within communities. Such a sense of security is essential to a sense of confidence – and as we have seen over the last three years, confidence is essential to economic growth.And the social wage also sets out our offer for people who want to live in Scotland, regardless of their background. We will provide a secure, stable and inclusive society. And by doing so we will encourage their talent and ambition. Scotland will be a place where people want to visit, invest, work and live.
An independent Scotland could be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield – addressing policy challenges in ways which reflect the universal values of fairness – and are capable of being considered, adapted and implemented according to the specific circumstances and wishes within the other jurisdictions of these islands and beyond.
That, I believe, is a far more positive and practical Scottish contribution to progressive policy than sending a tribute of Labour MPs to Westminster to have the occasional turn at the Westminster tiller – particularly in the circumstances of the Labour opposition's policy increasingly converging with that of the coalition on the key issues of the economy and public spending.
Social democracy, then, seems to be alive and well.......

Those wanting to know more about the Scottish devolution experience of the past 13 years can read a good objective treatment here
And those wanting to get a sense of the sort of discussion which is going on about the future of the country - read here

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