Michael Marra chats with SEAS: transformative education and hope

The SEAS was very pleased to have caught up with Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s new education spokesperson to hear from him of the national mission to reclaim hope for the transformative power of Scottish education across all stages and sectors. Michael shares his view of the transformative power of Scottish education and its impact on generations of his family. He speaks with a passion about improving experiences and outcomes for the least privileged of our children not just in Scotland but those marginalised through the negatives of globalisation across the globe. We even hear a positive mention for Dundee FC!

SEAS interviews Iain Gray MSP

When the Scottish Parliament rises officially on 4th May 2021, Iain Gray will be retiring as an MSP. Iain is one of the class of ’99 the group of MSPs who were elected for the first session of the new Scottish Parliament. He has had a range of experiences as a teacher in Scotland pre-devolution and Mozambique post-revolution. As well as a MSP and Scottish Labour Party Leader Iain has served as Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning and shadow education spokesperson during his participation in the Parliament.

The SEAS caught up with Iain before his retirement to discuss his career in teaching as well as his view of progress in education in Scotland. Iain is a politician with a hinterland as he talks us through his contribution as teacher, cabinet minister and education spokesperson. Iain gives us his view of the successes and impact of resource issues in Scottish education in recent years.

We did manage to tackle on his work with the Hibs Community Foundation on building collaboration to tackle food poverty and mental wellbeing through football. All in all a fascinating journey described by Iain which we are sure you will enjoy.

This is our first video and I did manage to get round to clicking the active speaker view after a while. And, yes, Iain’s dog did let us know that his mid-morning walk was being delayed due to the recording! Enjoy!

Iain Gray MSP – A shining light, “a noble end”

Iain Gray MSP’s final final speech

On 11th March Iain Gray MSP made his final final speech in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament having served as leader of the Scottish Labour Party but also as the key Scottish Labour Party figure in education in that time. He spoke to the Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) (Scotland) Bill. In his speech he reviewed the parliament over his 22 years as MSP and offered a vision of the work of the Scottish Parliament needing to shine light on darkness! We share his speech and share our view that he will be missed.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab): 
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I speak in support of the bill, which finally promises some redress for people whom we collectively let down so badly for so long. As children, they looked to us for care and we delivered them up to hurt, terror and torture, sometimes for years. Then, as the cabinet secretary said, for decades we refused to listen to them, but, in their courage, they would not be silenced. The bill has taken too long to achieve, and it could have been better. I wish that we had removed the waiver on rights to civil justice, but the bill is a substantive acknowledgement—at last—of survivors’ suffering and our responsibility for it.

As Jamie Greene indicated, this is my final speech. He will be too young to know that it is actually not the first time that I have made a final speech in the Parliament. The difference is that, the last time, I did not know that it was my final one. [Laughter.] It is better to make that decision ourselves than to have the electorate make it for us. I am glad that my final speech is about righting a wrong of the past.

I am privileged to be one of the class of ’99, as I believe that, over 22 years, we have put right many such wrongs. I helped to take through the very first act of this Parliament—the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000—which supported families who had been stymied in their care for loved ones by cruel incapacity laws, some of which were 400 years old. We abolished a feudal system that, for 1,000 years, had excluded the people of this country from vast swathes of their own land, and we opened it up to all. We closed down the long-stay hospitals in which our brothers and sisters with learning disabilities had been imprisoned for generations. It has been a privilege to be just a small part of all of that and of so much more that the Parliament has done when it has been at its best.

On that unforgettable opening day in 1999, Donald Dewar said that the Scottish Parliament is about “how we carry ourselves”. I do not believe that he meant how we strut on the world stage or swagger along the corridors of power. He meant how closely we are willing to walk alongside those who need us most and how willing we are to stand with those who are hungry, who are hurting or who have no hope—not craving the limelight, but rather braving the darkness that it is our duty to try to dispel. We have not always succeeded, of course.

There are plenty of present-day wrongs that I will be looking to those members who come back in May to put right. After all, we opened up access to our land, but it is still owned by a tiny, wealthy, powerful elite. We liberated people with learning disabilities from long-stay hospitals, but into a social care system that fails them again and again. There were precious few food banks back in 1999. What were we doing that so many came to depend on them? Child poverty is rising. Drug deaths are Scotland’s shame.

The Parliament’s best days are the days when we refuse to accept that we cannot change those things and we believe in our power to do that. The Parliament that I leave is not the one that I entered 20 years ago. Following the Smith commission, on which I had the privilege of serving, it is one of the most powerful devolved legislatures anywhere. I know that many members will continue to argue for its sovereignty, and that is their right. However, I sincerely believe that the pandemic has demonstrated the power of devolution, taking our own decisions here—some of which I agree with, others which I do not—about public health measures, schools, the national health service and how we support business. However, we do so while we are underpinned by being part of a bigger economy with a broader tax base, more borrowing power, greater research funding and greater purchasing power for vaccines and personal protective equipment. In any case—pandemic or not—our daily obligation is to use every power that we have, with all the urgency that we can muster, to right those wrongs of poverty and injustice.

I turn to that Donald Dewar speech again:“A Scottish Parliament. Not an end: a means to greater ends. ”A noble end—like today: a measure of justice at last for survivors of abuse. It has been a privilege to be part of that. It has been an especial privilege to represent East Lothian for the past 14 years, so let me place on record for the last time that East Lothian is the best constituency, the best county and the best part of Scotland in which to live or work. [Laughter.] 

I could not have be part of any of that without the support of so many staff in Parliament, the Labour researchers and the staff in my local office—currently Chris, Ryan and John, but many others over the years, not least Pat and Simon, whom we miss. Above all, my thanks go to my family, especially to my wife, Gil. I would never have been here without her encouragement nor have survived without her holding my hand through the ups and downs. This bill is an up. It is a good bill—some light in a terrible darkness. We will support it this evening, and that will be me loused. Thank you. [Applause.]

Another SNP education failure: the OECD Review

The SNP’s decision to postpone releasing the OECD’s review into Curriculum for Excellence till after the elections in May 2021 has merely led to heightened speculation about its contents. The Socialist Educational Association Scotland has its view on what will either be missing or edited out. The SEAS’ views were not invited to participate in the Review. When we approached either Scottish Government or the OECD  our views were not sought as a contribution either.

The SEAS welcomes the review. Any curricular system benefits from a process of review. This is  not necessarily permanent revolution but some form of  built-in renewal and change. Such renewal should not have to wait for a crisis and the need for a new normal or even building back better. Planning for a decade long change would be beneficial till we renew once more.

Talking of the pandemic one of the key elements in discussing the new future is taking account of a year of radical change. In the year from last March to March 2021, in countries across the globe and particularly where the impact of the pandemic was poorly managed (i.e. here); society was effectively de-schooled. 

In part, for too many children and young people, this led to a “schooling loss” the impact of which is yet to be fully measured.  Some young people never missed attending a school building that much and with their teachers adjusted to forms of online teaching and learning.  Other children and their families found ways to engage in home learning that compensated for missing their school. 

All of this means that there has been a radical consciousness-raising exercise about the value of attending school education, or as a neighbour’s P1 child had it in early March 2021 being “back at proper school “.  The opportunity is being missed to re-engage with Scottish society about a renewal of Curriculum for Excellence drawing on the past two decades as well as the range of experiences over the past year. 

Below are the proposals from the first National Debate. In 2002, the Labour-led Scottish Executive Education Department launched a national debate on schools for the 21st century. The debate elicited over 1500 responses and it is estimated that 20,000 people took part. It is a shame that that the views of the Scottish people have not yet been put into practice fully two decades after they were proposed. 

It is not too late to engage in a National Renewal Debate to match the thousands of contacts and the model of civic participation in education policy-making from the national debate at the start of the century. We need a new future now shaped by the Scottish people not the OECD, not just the Parliament, definitely not the international advisors and not solely the professionals. It takes all of us to raise a child. 

Statements on Scottish education from Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar

As part of the election for Leader of the Scottish Labour party we asked the candidates, Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon to share their views on Scottish education. Here are the candidates’ statements, previously shared with SEAS members ahead of the election. SEAS members voted to nominate Monica Lennon MSP as Leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Statement from Monica Lennon MSP 

As a working-class girl growing up in Lanarkshire, it never crossed my mind that one day I would be seeking to lead the Scottish Labour Party. I am proud to be asking for the support of SEAS.

My family and community shaped my politics. I learned about the value of lifelong learning and the workplace from my dad. He got a second chance at education and worked his way up to be a health and safety manager within the local council. He cared about people having dignity at work and for their physical and mental well-being, when stress and mental health was rarely discussed. 

My dad had his own battles, mainly with alcohol, and he had to stop working aged 50. He died from alcohol-related illnesses at 60. It broke my heart, however, it made me determined to fight for better opportunities and support for people before they reach a crisis. 

The Labour Party was created to give opportunities to working people and to enable them to make a better life for themselves. That starts with the early years and education. Ending the poverty-related attainment gap must be our mission, so that all of Scotland’s young people get the best start in life.

It is a scandal that your postcode so often continues to determine your outcomes in life. Never again can we allow a situation like the SQA results scandal of 2020. Our politics should be about getting things done and delivering results – real positive change that will improve people’s lives.  First as a councillor, where I was a member of the Education Committee, and now as an MSP and Party health and social care spokesperson, my politics has always been rooted in making life better for working people and ending poverty.  

In my first term in Parliament, I delivered the world-leading Period Products Bill, working with trade unions and with campaigners and activists in communities all over Scotland and beyond. And I worked with Labour councillors and education staff on the introduction of free period products in schools, colleges and universities long before the Bill was even passed. As leader, my ambition will be to take forward with SEAS our shared ambition to resource and deliver world-leading education services.

The last decade of devolution has in many ways been a disappointment. The SNP’s record is not one to be proud of and the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the health and wealth inequalities that existed before COVID-19.  

The Scottish Labour Party that I lead will face the country as it is today.  The next Parliament must be focused on COVID-19 recovery. As leader, I will work with all our members and affiliates to ensure it is a people’s recovery. 

  • Learning loss under COVID is under-recognised and it will fall most upon those with the least resources. I will prioritise targeting more resources to the learners and schools experiencing the most disadvantage, including access to our brightest and best teachers.
  • We need more targeted support to disadvantaged schools. That’s why supporting local councils is so important and they need more support from Education Scotland. Instead of private schools getting individual time from HM Inspectors,  this should go to schools in disadvantaged areas.
  • We need to regenerate the role of local communities and local authorities in schools and the curriculum.  More learning can take place outdoors beyond classroom walls, and this will help our recovery from the isolating and emotional toll of the pandemic.
  • We must improve outcomes for learners who are not fulfilling their potential, including white working-class boys, disabled children and young gypsy/travellers. I helped to organise support for the Time for Inclusive campaign on LGBT+ inclusive education and want to expand on this equalities work, working with you, our experts in the field.
  • We also need to improve the outcomes for young BAME people, who still meet to many barriers into employment.
  • Our curriculum needs to be reviewed and feature more aspects of diversity, inclusive education and social justice.

I was recently contacted by my former Modern Studies teacher who had some lovely words of praise for the type of pupil I was and the politician I am aspiring to be. She inspired me when I didn’t have a lot of self-belief. She helped me achieve my goals and I owe my teachers everything for my place at university, aged just 16. It breaks my heart that in the same school today there are children who can’t concentrate on learning because of hunger, insecurity, lack of resources and lack of role models.

I’m in politics to win for working people. The people who juggled home-schooling and work; the people who kept shelves stocked and the country connected; the people who saved lives every day while risking their own. Too many people in Scotland are undervalued and too many have nothing at all. That’s why I’m not prepared to sit on the side-lines.  

As Scottish Labour leader, I will provide a new generation of leadership while staying true to our values.  I will fight every day for radical social and economic change.

Statement from Anas Sarwar MSP 

Scotland needs to be far more radical to reach our ambition to have an education system which provides excellence and equity for all.

Over the past decade, we have seen savage cuts within classrooms across the country, fewer staff in schools, resources stripped away, the inequality and attainment gaps growing. Teachers’ workload has increased and all too often – particularly this year – they are not supported by Government or the agencies who should be stepping up. 

These cuts have let down staff and pupils. And pupils with additional support needs are an immediate priority to ensure that all our young people are supported to access an excellent education. We cannot afford to wait.

Scotland has continued to fall behind in some international league tables and has withdrawn altogether from others. Our curriculum, particularly in the senior phase, has narrowed with poorer pupils losing out the most.

The SQA shambles of last August has shown the inequality that is baked into our system, with pupils’ grades downgraded not based on their performance, but their postcode. It was the poorest pupils who were most impacted, through no fault of their own but due to a decision of John Swinney. I’m proud of the reaction of Scotland’s pupils, they fought hard and overturned this system. 

But we must ensure that inequality is always challenged and never accepted. We can’t leave it to pupils and teachers. Labour has to be at their side too.

And because we know educational inequality isn’t created within the four-walls of the classroom, to truly address the extent of our large and stubborn attainment gap, we must tackle social and economic inequality in our communities. 

That’s why I’m clear the next Parliament has to be a COVID recovery Parliament. We need a period of healing, to bring the country together, to build back better, to protect jobs, to fix our education system and deliver an NHS that never again has to choose between treating a virus or treating cancer.

With your support, I will ensure Scottish Labour becomes the credible and trusted opposition I know we can be. I’ll do this by working with people like you – key workers, trades unions, experts and business leaders across Scotland to build a platform that looks to the future.

With your support, I will champion voices from across Scotland and our movement. I will work hard to bring all of us together, so we can rebuild our party, and rebuild Scotland.

International Day of Education 2021

Today is the International Day of Education. The Socialist Educational Association Scotland sees today as a chance to record our thanks to educators and learners everywhere and their families in their struggle to prevent and minimise learning loss in young lives as a result of the pandemic.

We recognise that in a public health emergency socialised learning for all in schools needs to be limited to avoid spreading the virus.  However, inequalities already present in our society are only exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19.  

We need to start to consider ways to address such inequalities across Scottish education starting from early learning through adult lifelong learning.   

Today we want to say thanks to the educators at home or in school, online or face to face, for us, all of you are key workers. (Today take the day off!)  

It takes a crisis …


We all had our plans for 2020.   Scottish education had its best-laid schemes in 2020 too.  On 27th April the annual examinations diet, was to begin with the Higher German Reading and Directed Writing paper.  Instead on 19th March, the Cabinet Secretary announced that the exams were to be cancelled and alternative arrangements to be put in place in face of the significant disruption arising from the global pandemic.

Scotland wasn’t alone in its response. UNESCO carried out an analysis that showed 58 out of 84 surveyed countries had postponed or rescheduled exams, 23 introduced alternative methods such as online or home-based testing, 22 maintained exams while in 11 countries, they were cancelled altogether.  Higher Education institutions moved fairly rapidly to no detriment policies of assessment and many operated on formative assessment processes in 2020 with no final exams in examination halls.

Of course, cancelling the exams for schools and colleges for one year raises the question, why have exams at all?

In 1947 in a time, after a previous global crisis the Scottish Advisory Council on secondary education offered a radical approach for assessment. In the pantheon of reports in Scottish education it was fairly scathing about examinations,

“The influence of examinations is three-fold. It affects the treatment of the examinable subjects themselves, tending always to exalt the written above the spoken, to magnify memory and master of fact at the expense of understanding and liveliness of mind. It depresses the status of the non-examinable, so that the aesthetic and creative side of education, with all its possibilities for human satisfaction and cultural enrichment, remains largely undeveloped and poorly esteemed. And lastly, the examination which began as a means, becomes for many the end itself. In the atmosphere created by this preoccupation with examination success, it is difficult to think nobly of education, to see in it the endless quest of man’s preparation for either society or solitude. The cult of the examination has proved all too congenial to the hard practicality of the Scot, and in excessive concern about livelihood, the art of living has tended to be forgotten.”

“It is said that many teachers like working towards examinations. There could be no more urgent reason for getting rid of them”

A point perhaps more graphically echoed in an UNESCO report on accountability in education in 2017.

Screenshot 2020-08-19 at 16.03.04

Across Scotland’s qualifications framework we have already got rid of exams for 20% of the entries across schools and colleges. That’s without questioning the trust placed in teachers and lecturers to accurately assess pass or fail National 2, National 3 and National 4 for one fifth of qualifications.   Some might suggest  exams are only for most young people!

A starting point to consider changes to assessment and certification is to consider inclusive approaches for all learners as they and their teachers certificate their learning over the three years of their senior phase.

In June 2020 UNESCO launched its Global Education Monitoring Report on Inclusion and Education. (Just to share an idea where it was coming from – it compared debates on inclusive education as similar to debating the abolition of slavery or ending apartheid. The Scottish Parliament has debated inclusion three times in the past three years!).  The report in promoting inclusive education for all was critical of “one size fits most” approach.

The GEM Report 2020 included a chapter on Curricula textbooks and assessment subtitled “How can students learn if the system reminds them of their exclusion?”

It looked at assessments from the viewpoint of inclusion and called for the focus to shift away from high-stakes assessments and instead to focus on students’ tasks: how they tackle them, which ones prove difficult and how some aspects can be adapted to enable success. In its view low-stakes formative assessments carried out over the education trajectory were far more fit for the purpose of inclusive education.

This would also mean that the crises of sudden interruptions in education such as pandemics would be less of an issue for ensuring qualifications were unaffected.  Ending external examinations would crisis-proof our education systems!

Changing assessment practices is only one part of the puzzle. While inclusive approaches have implications for curricula and resources such textbooks there are more fundamental issues about the purposes of education and moving away from the sausage factory of latter stages of schooling.

In Scotland and across the UK we have become over-centralised in education and neglected the roles that schools play in their local communities by too often focusing on debates about international comparisons, national standardised assessments and narrowly concerned with one dimensional attainment gaps.  If we are serious about empowering schools and teachers then less centralised approaches are necessary in terms of curriculum, assessment and accountability.



Save Our Futures, All Means All


In the last week of June, Gordon Brown spoke at the launch of the 2020 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report  which has the theme of Inclusion and Education.   In leading the launch with #AllMeansAll Gordon stated  “Never was the theme inclusion for all more important. We need a campaign to save our future built around this report.  We have to hold to the dream that in the next 10 years that every single child in the world has the chance of an education. We have to develop all of the potential of all of our children.”

Include all learners

The importance of inclusive education is shared by the SEAS and we continue to promote inclusive education across Scotland.  The GEM  Report includes its easy read version  as well as a series of short videos and cartoons.   You also have the chance to vote for your own personal choice of key message in a poll on the Report.  Last checked over a third of respondents selected the statement “Widen the understanding of inclusive education: it should include all learners, no matter their identity, background or ability”.

The Report is well worth reading.  It opens in its introduction with the challenging statement, particularly in the UK setting.

“It notes that debating the benefits of inclusive education can be seen as tantamount to debating the benefits of the abolition of slavery, or indeed of apartheid.”

In Scotland we have had three debates in the Scottish Parliament in the last three years. The debates about mainstreaming have tended not to be framed in terms of the abolition of slavery or the separate development aspects of apartheid!

Layers of exclusion

Emboldened and challenging statements do not just stop there.  Inclusive education is placed within the struggle to tackle all inequalities

“All over the world, discrimination is based on gender, remoteness, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, incarceration, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion and other beliefs and attitudes; the Covid-19 pandemic has added new layers of exclusion.”

The Report considers that funding for inclusion has been inadequate

“Equity and inclusion will not be achieved without adequate funding reaching schools and students according to need.” 

Challenges in bring about inclusive education

As UNESCO says the gem Report  highlights the challenges in bringing about inclusion, many of which still continue to apply to Scotland.

“These include differing understandings of the word inclusion, lack of teacher support, absence of data on those excluded from education, inappropriate infrastructure, persistence of parallel systems and special schools, lack of political will and community support, untargeted finance, uncoordinated governance, multiple but inconsistent laws, and policies that are not being followed through.”

Scottish Labour’s response

In the Scottish Labour Party’s Education draft policy paper some, but not all , of the themes from the GEM Report can be found. The Policy Forum on education proposes

“We see the need for our schools to work in collaboration with their community to achieve better outcomes for our children and contribute towards achieving a more socially just and inclusive society in Scotland.”; and

“We will require every school to publish an annual plan to improve inclusive practices so that no child misses out. The Scottish Government and each education authority should have an inclusion strategy in line with the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy.”  and in terms of an inclusive curricula

“We will ensure a zero-tolerance approach to violence, bullying and discrimination based on sexuality and gender in Scottish society. Labour supports the aims of the TIE campaign to develop LGBTI inclusive education in Scotland’s schools”

Scotland’s approach to LGBTI inclusive education within the curriculum is one of the few mentions of Scottish education within the GEM Report (p136). That lack of attention to Scotland and its self-proclaimed inclusiveness  should lead some to question just how inclusive we are as a nation in terms of equity and inclusion.

Embedding equality education in curriculum, textbooks and teaching

At the recent Scottish Labour Party #After The Lockdown event on 29th June the SEAS emphasised the importance of embedding equality education throughout the curriculum.  Barrington Reeves #BlackLivesMatter thought it essential that at the core  the curriculum we should be

“teaching about anti-racism.  I think that is something we need to actually teach to future generations… this country will only be stronger if we are all united and understand each other”

The GEM report devotes a chapter to curriculum, textbooks and assessment and their view of embedding equality education. This involves children and young people having an inclusive learning experience which requires an inclusive curriculum, textbooks and assessment practices. Barrington’s words were matched by the GEM report

“Curricula exclude when they do not cater to learners’ diverse needs and do not respect human and citizenship rights.”  

The GEM report considered three concepts in the curriculum chapter that places inclusion as an exercise in democracy.

First, there are political tensions regarding the kind of society people aspire to achieve through education, for inclusion is an exercise in democracy. Second, there are practical challenges in ensuring flexibility in order to serve diverse contexts and needs without segregating learners. Third, there are technical challenges in ensuring that the curriculum serves equity by being relevant and in creating bridges that do not cut off some learners.  

Call to Action

SEAS encourages you to read the Report and consider are we going to continue debating inclusion in Scotland or are going follow the report’s call to action

“Inclusion is not just a choice for policymakers. Imposed from above it will never work. So, the question you, as readers, are asked in the report is whether you are ready to challenge the current mindset and ready to decide that education is for everyone and must strive to be inclusive of all.”