If you want to create a better future, where would you start? With the things that are or the ones yet to come? To create a better, more optimistic Scotland, we need to ensure that the individuals that inhabit it are aware, educated and prepared for the world they will face. In that case, we need to move away from our current education factories, which are churning out people with qualifications but not educated individuals. Every child should have the right to the best possible education. This means having good access to a teacher’s time and the materials to learn.
Our children should have the best care possible and this starts from the moment they are born. There is growing consensus that the first three years of a child’s life are the most important in relation to how they will develop emotionally and educationally. This is when children establish basic or fundamental trust. If they fail to establish this primal sense, a child will not be able to differentiate in later life. They will also have problems associating and establishing relationships with others. This also leads to deficiencies in their education, which goes on to cause other problems. The Scottish Government and COSLA published the Early Years Framework in 2008. The Framework is their commitment to giving all Scottish children the best possible start in life by maximising positive opportunities for all. There is a wealth of evidence indicating that the earliest years of life are crucial to a child’s development and future life chances. This preventative policy seeks to address the needs of children whose lives, opportunities and ambitions are restricted by poverty, poor health, lack of opportunity and unemployment. The Early Years Framework aims to break the negative cycle that is passed from one generation to another. The Framework sets out 10 elements to achieve this and covers the period from pre-birth to age eight. Each element has priorities, with short, medium and long term outcomes for each.
Both COSLA and the Scottish Government have agreed to invest in early years to reduce the costs of failure through prevention and early intervention. They have agreed to provide a supportive environment for children and the earliest possible identification of any additional support they might need. Of course, the best way to achieve this is to remove the underlying problem, which is poverty. However, this would take a fundamental change to our society, one that mainstream politics does not seem willing to discuss or act on. In the meantime we need to act on the Framework’s priorities and achieve them sooner than the ten year time-frame suggested. Education gives children hope to escape the poverty trap they are born into, giving them the courage to stand up for themselves and make up their own minds. Without education you get believers, with education you get questioners and doubters. The questioners and doubters are the ones who will change society for the better and that’s what we need – a better society.
On a less hierarchical level, there are things we can do that will help achieve the aims now. At nursery level, we should ensure that there is full-time state provision for all children over four, with the aim to increase this to three as soon as possible. Children from within the catchment area should receive priority over those who will not attend the accompanying primary school. Since the schools are in their community, it is only right that they are the priority. Within the state system, there are higher standards of provision for the children – the staff-child ratio is much lower than what is considered acceptable in private nurseries.
We need to cut class sizes to ensure each pupil gets sufficient attention, which will also encourage them to learn and feel appreciated. This is emphasised by the latest news that Edinburgh Council is to use team teaching in fourteen Primary One classes come August. Team teaching sees two teachers share the same classroom to teach separate classes. In theory this makes the classes a maximum of 50 pupils, in keeping with the Scottish Government legislation reducing P1 class sizes from 30 to a maximum of 25. The Council claims this will allow “effective teaching and learning” to take place. Really? Have you ever spend any time in the company of 50 four- and five-year olds? I would say that spokesperson hasn’t. However, the local authority is putting this in place to meet their legislative responsibility while working in the environment of insufficient funding and its school closure programme. Personally I think we should follow the example of our continental neighbours and make the P1 year more a continuation of the soft learning established at nursery level. This would allow them to get used to school and learning, with an emphasis on learning softer skills, such as communication, emotional intelligence and including others in their world view. When they start primary school in what is currently P2, they are ready for a more formal education. This will give them the chance to grow and grasp the basics in a less formal setting, which will stand them in good stead as they progress through their schooling. Schools, through the Curriculum of Excellence, should also give children the opportunity to move ahead in subjects where they have the aptitude, desire and ability. If children are challenged to do better, they achieve more. If we let them coast along, they will content themselves with mediocrity. Surely that is not something we want for children.
Scotland also needs to move away from segregated schools. I think they are damaging to our children, our society and the education budget. They teach children to look for differences where they cannot see any. If we are serious about talking sectarianism in Scotland, this is a good place to start. Why should the state teach our children about any particular religion? Is that not the job of the parents and their preachers? There is supposed to be a separation of state and church but the policy of having state-run schools that advocate one religion undermines that policy. If parents want their child to follow a particular religion, they should do that at home or as part of their worship. By all means, teach children that there are different religions in the world but not give more emphasis to one than any other. Segregated schools also put additional pressures on the education budget. Why have two state secondary schools next to each other just because of religion? Even shared campuses, where they share facilities, still enforce that there is a difference. Children are born without prejudices, instead they learn them from us. Lets stop that altogether and teach them all together. With the extra resources made available, we can ensure that schools have more facilities, smaller class sizes and higher standards.
To help ensure children have enough energy to concentrate during the whole day, we have to make sure they have the fuel in the first place. A hungry child is not one who will be able to concentrate and learn. Therefore, we should provide every pupil with a fruit at mid-morning and a free meal at lunchtime. This removes any stigma from the concept of free school meals and also ensures that the children have a healthy and varied diet. This would also free up resources from identifying those entitled to the benefit and processing their applications. By ensuring our schools provide healthy food, sourced at a local level, we are helping children to learn a good ‘healthstyle’ at an early age. We will also help the local economy and the environment by reducing the food miles incurred through sourcing the ingredients. By having the children sit down together with proper cutlery and china, we will also help develop their social skills.
We also need to value the parents’ role in raising children. Society needs an attitudinal shift and realise that raising children is a worthwhile life choice. While not for everyone, we should celebrate the parents who would rather spend time raising their children rather than return to work and only see them at the start and the end of the day. In a modern, just society, we would realise that raising children is a job in itself, one that currently is unpaid. One option to help improve this is the creation of a ‘salary’ for stay-at-home parents, even in the form of increased benefits or tax credits, depending on their situation. To receive this salary, individuals would have to start undertaking basic parenting education during pregnancy. This would make them more prepared to deal with the reality after the birth. This education process would continue during the child’s first five years, with on-going assessment by their health visitor. This is not for everyone but it should be an option to those who want to stay at home and raise their children rather than having to go back to work and pay someone else to raise them. This is common practice on the continent and is another way that Scotland can take its place as a modern European country. The Early Years Framework has priorities that cover providing opportunities for people to improve their parenting skills and how to help raise their children. Sadly, the resources are not there to roll these out to all who need them. Yet again, if we want to make a better future for our children and our country, we have to ensure the funding elements are there. Otherwise, the policies and strategies are not worth the paper they are printed on.
If we want to make a better, more positive Scotland, let’s start with the early years and go on from there. However, let’s make sure the changes are in place before the end of the Early Years Framework’s ten year vision. Otherwise, all the work to help improve children up to the age of eight is for naught. This is before we look at ensuring that no child leaves primary school without being literate and numerate. There is also secondary education, where pupils should have the chance to choose vocational subjects when they start there. All schools should have provision to teach vocational and academic courses, giving children the chance to study subjects that they are interested in. We could help give children over fourteen years old the chance to undertake some worthwhile work experience if they want during the holidays. At present, firms are reluctant to offer this, so perhaps the Scottish Government needs to provide incentives for employers to offer mini-apprenticeships throughout the Summer holidays. However, I am not advocating reducing the age children can leave school, this should stay at sixteen.
We also need to make use of the facilities available so our children have a better option than hanging round the streets or in parks. We have the facilities there, but they are not available due to the price or lack of people to oversee their use. We have demonised our teenagers and made them feel ignored and excluded. If you alienate children and young people, demonising them as hoodies and thugs, they will reject what you offer. If we want the next generation to respect us, we have to respect them. That means we have to provide support for the volunteering sector, youth clubs and after-school clubs – giving teenagers a chance to do something more than grow bored and disenfranchised from society. Sometimes, especially with education, properly funded schemes and projects means making savings further down the line. Let’s invest in our future now rather than leaving them to a bleak, opportunity-free future.
Scotland also needs stronger local colleges that can cater for people who do not want to pursue academic courses. There’s also access to higher education, which should remain free, with no tuition fees and no graduate contribution. Graduates are said to earn more due to their qualifications, so we don’t need a graduate tax to make them contribute more.
Finally, we need to leave the Curriculum for Excellence in place for at least five years before reviewing how effective it has proven. The constant churn of initiatives and systems stops teachers from doing their jobs – teaching our children. Let’s give them the opportunity to do just that and not use them as administrators. After all, they are educating our children, our future.
- This morning I issued a press release explaining why the next Scottish Government to ensure there is sufficient funding for the Early Years Framework.