Reform Scotland

Fraser Nelson reviews a week in politics- Spectator

This article by Fraser Nelson appeared in The Spectator.

It takes more than an inch of snow to stop the wheels of Scottish democracy. The devolved parliament was hard at work on Monday morning, eight of its members engaged on a most sombre business: a motion formally denouncing a rogue political columnist. It reads as follows:

To trawl the internet and denounce offending phrases is, alas, not an atypical pastime for MSPs. Rather than seek new solutions to the appalling poverty in east Glasgow (whose ghettoes have the lowest life expectancy in the developed world), Scotland’s legislators attack those who draw attention to the problem. Devolution has hardly given Castlemilk bold new champions. Its first MSP, a young Labour peer, stepped down after being imprisoned for fire-raising. Its new representative, Charlie Gordon, was recently found to have paid £13,000 of public money to his son’s internet firm. He is the author of the above motion.

I crept on his radar, I suspect, not initially because of the blog but when I joined a BBC Radio Scotland debate on whether children in these deprived estates should be given a £10,000 education voucher. This was the proposal by Reform Scotland, a new (and rather optimistically named) think-tank. I was all for it, arguing that the desire to do what’s best for one’s child is a basic, powerful human instinct felt as strongly in Bearsden and Milngavie (two of Glasgow’s richest estates) as in Easterhouse and Castlemilk (two of the poorest).

Conditions in these two estates are beyond doubt: they are living tableaux of the way the unreformed welfare state makes poverty permanent. Most adults there are living on benefits. Two in five mothers smoke throughout pregnancy. A boy born in either estate is likely to die sooner than one born in Kazakhstan, North Korea or Romania. And it was a Castlemilk resident named Mick, with whom I used to work the 5 a.m. shift in a Royal Mail sorting office, who first pointed out the paradox. ‘Why is it,’ he once asked, ‘that this city’s scummiest estates have the nicest names?’

Yet when the Stuarts of Castlemilk sold their estate to the council in 1936, it was every bit as picturesque as it sounds. It had a stately home, later demolished, and rolling fields that were turned into a concrete jungle of council flats. The area became synonymous with crime, drugs and — from the early 1980s — a place where urban regeneration budgets came to die. Buildings were spruced up, yet the odds stacked against the children who grew up there were heartbreakingly high. For all the undoubted cosmetic improvements in Castlemilk High, its academic record remains dire — and continues to deteriorate.

If money were the answer, the estates would by now be exemplars. An astonishing £7,145 is spent on the average Glasgow secondary state pupil — more, for those in deprived schools. So Reform Scotland’s £10,000 figure was no great exaggeration. The private Glasgow Academy, alma mater of the historian Niall Ferguson and one of the very best schools in the world, charges £8,500 a year. This is the crucial point: it is not lack of money that condemns poor children to poor schools. It is lack of political will.

The solution is the fairly simple voucher system, at work in countries ranging from Canada to the Netherlands. Independent schools are paid by the state and compete with each other for pupils. Yet bureaucrats hate opening new schools if there are vacancies in bad ones — and, in Britain, the system belongs to them, and to the unions. No one on either side of Hadrian’s Wall has broken their grip. Even Tory education authorities defied the Major government’s attempts to grant autonomy to local schools, and Tony Blair’s 2005 plan to make every state school independent was shot down by Labour rebels.

Yet David Cameron may succeed, where all the above failed, and this is the single most promising aspect to a prospective Tory government. He would enact the system guaranteeing funding to any new school that will set up and charge less than, say, £7,000 a pupils — or £8,500 in the deprived areas. As Sweden found with its reforms, this is enough: schools come out of the woodwork. Suddenly, the poor have as much choice in education as the rich do.

Crucially, the Tory plan does not stop there. This week Michael Gove and Mr Cameron have been making clear they would give head teachers full control over their budgets. And while the language is coded, the mission is clear: to end collective pay bargaining (the so-called TUPE rules) and allow the best teachers to be paid more and the worst ones to be sacked. As this undermines the wage-fixing role of the unions, they will surely fight these proposals to the death.

The unions are quiet for now, calculating that, having seen off everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Lord Adonis, they can easily deal with what they see as the dilettante Cameroons. But Mr Gove has grasped what eluded his predecessors: trying to reform schools from the centre is futile. The key is to transfer power, through meticulously drafted legislation. That is why the Education Bill in Mr Cameron’s first Queen’s Speech will be nothing short of revolutionary.

The Scottish Parliament, of course, can opt out of any reform. This, along with banning things, is what it has chosen to do since its birth. So if the Tories take Westminster next year then Britain will undergo a massive controlled experiment. England, under Cameron, will endow head teachers with radical new powers and see just what happens when parents become the ‘tsars’. Scotland will stick to the East German model, vesting all power with the bureaucracy. And if the next Tory Prime Minister keeps his nerve it will not be long before we see which system is the best.