In his weekly column, Conter editor David Jamieson argues that Scotland’s elites have long promoted illusions in the ability of the school system to alleviate inequality.
The disastrous downgrading of Scotland’s young people, especially its working-class majority, by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has struck a complicit Scottish establishment hard. The government are reeling in shock from the strength of the backlash, compounded by their tone-deaf defence of the exams body.
By standing by the brutal logic of class stratification in such an open fashion, they are feeding the spirit of protest which has compelled some disgruntled students to organise a gathering at SQA headquarters this Friday.
The scandal strikes down a latent but fundamental item of contemporary ideology: social mobility, meritocracy, so called ‘equality of opportunity’. Rage at the recent decision factors in the loss of hoped for education or career paths for young people – and this is reason enough for anger.
But it’s not just the veil of social mobility being trodden on here. It’s young people’s sense of dignity, identity, and self-esteem. These are extremely volatile properties in an atmosphere of already heightened tension.
The mess, coming after years when the Scottish Government pleaded ‘closing the attainment gap’ as its guiding mission, the policy for which it was to be judged in 2021, begs deeper questions about the social function of education and its actual capacity, much over-estimated, to generate social progress.
The idea that we can resolve social inequality through education has a powerful national pedigree. Once attached to the Kirk, Scotland’s education system had long guarded its relative independence from the British state. Under this stewardship, it was imbued with the national-religious pre-occupation with moral self-improvement.
Ever since devolution, successive Scottish governments have carried New Labour’s faith that ‘education, education, education’ was actually abolishing the working class into the new middle class. Blairism embarked a voyage into occultish notions of self-help, positive thinking, and Ted Talk cant. Education was worshipped as an alternative to social democratic reform. Problems would no longer require class justice, just new thinking about schools and self-esteem.
Fresh bureaucratic layers emerged, and genuine evangelists for PFI and motivational speakers – who toured secondary campuses. Teachers and pupils alike were told to will progress, and by the willing, achieve it. We sometimes forget that Blairism was a real movement in the middle classes, including in Scotland.
In the decade since that festival of naivety, already constricted school budgets came under the pressure of austerity.
Above all else – and this is a crucial factor in understanding educational inequalities in Scotland – the growth of poverty and inequality in society seeped into classrooms. By the middle of the 2010s, teachers across the UK were complaining that they were forced to use school budgets to plug yawning gaps in the welfare system.
The massive social stress induced by the offensive was crowding learning out of the minds of many working class students. We must remember that the problems of educational inequality were not, in the main, created in the field of education. They arise instead in the wider theatre of social and economic inequality.
Schools cannot fix inequality, no matter what the third-way cranks believe. This creates a problem for centre-left ideologues, who largely curate the perverse unreality of our conversations about inequality.
The most obvious truths go routinely unspoken. You cannot have equality of opportunity without actual equality. And you cannot measure equality in intelligence or aptitude. Why should young people with better grades go into jobs where they are paid more money? We do not, after all, operate in an economy where higher skilled work creates more social value.
These deeper questions and tensions are not separate from the immediate contest over class-based grading, but nor can they be addressed by rumination. We need action, and young people are right to protest this wrong. In coming decades, powerful forces will challenge this generation time and again, with crises even more potent.