Speech to Scottish Conservative Spring Conference
The last four years have demonstrated that the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have no understanding of school discipline. In 1999, the Scottish Executive pledged to "reduce by a third the days lost every year through exclusion from school and truancy." Entirely predictably, this pressure to reduce exclusions succeeded only in tying the hands of headteachers and caused an unparalleled increase in the level of violence and indiscipline in our classrooms. The Executive's own figures show that the number of reported incidents of violence against local authority school staff has increased by over 700% from 743 in 1997-98 to 5,412 in 2001-02. Appallingly, there is now an attack against a teacher roughly every fifteen minutes.
Sadly, their record on attainment is no better. In 1999, Scottish Labour promised that, under a Labour administration, 80% of children would reach the appropriate standard in reading, writing and arithmetic by the time they left primary school. However, the Scottish Executive's 5-14 Attainment figures for 2001-02 showed that only 72% of pupils had reached level D by the time they had finished P7. The figures for writing and mathematics were even worse at 59.2% and 68.5% respectively.
Furthermore, these figures also showed that around 50% of school pupils are failing to reach the targets set for reading, writing and mathematics by the end of S2.
How about the much-trumpeted McCrone settlement - hailed by Jack McConnell as a turning point for Scottish education? Well, while teacher's pay has been agreed on, Audit Scotland is so concerned about the lack of significant reforms that they have begun a review of the deal.
In addition, huge doubts surround the funding of chartered teachers and their associated training while the commitment to provide every new teacher with a probationary placement has eroded the powers of principal teachers and headteachers. The problems looks set to worsen this year and next.
Perhaps the greatest failure of this Executive is their failure to improve the educational opportunities of Scotland's most vulnerable children. In 1999 the Scottish Executive pledged to "bring the poorest-performing 20%, in terms of Standard Grade achievement, closer to the performance of all pupils." However, by the Scottish Executive's own admission, the relative performance of the poorest performing 20% has failed to improve.
In fact, Scottish Conservative research on Higher level attainment has shown that the gap between the top and bottom state secondaries has actually widened. This, tied in with the fact that the number of pupils leaving school with no qualifications whatsoever rose by 8% last year, represents an appalling failure to help those children who are most in need of help.
Of course, this problem, like most in Scottish education, is a product of the system. The truth is that only those who can afford to pay twice - once through taxation, and again through school fees can opt to have their children taught as they wish. Those left to the tender mercies of the state school system are further differentiated by where they can afford housing. If we wanted to design a school system with the express aim of perpetuating social divisions, it is hard to see how we could improve on existing arrangements.