It is a measure of how far we have come that few headlines have the capacity to shock. The news that Essex police have warned parents not to buy toy guns for their toddlers lest armed police mistake them for drug barons and shoot them dead raises only a flicker. But one story last week managed to raise both surprise and concern. It was the report that in Scotland one-fifth of all adults lacked basic literacy skills.
How sad that the land of Adam Smith, David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment should have fallen so low. Scotland was always prized for the way its education system provided a ladder upward for the poor but talented. The "lad o' pairts" was a stock figure in the success story of Scotland and the Scots. Why is it now so far gone?
I really do not believe there are simple one-off answers like 'state education,' I rather think it might be a compound of several factors which took Scotland's eyes off the ball. One is the purpose of education. The aim of equipping children to have access to life's opportunities and to fulfill their potential became obscured by a desire to turn out right-thinking and socially aware future citizens. A second is the abysmal drop in the status of teachers. From respected pillars of the community they have been reduced to form fillers who meet the targets set by remote administrators. I really do not think the Gordon Brown mantra of "lack of resources" has played any part. Scottish education achieved wonders when it was chaotically under-resourced but featured motivated teachers and determined parents.
What can be done? One answer might be to give schools and teachers their independence. State funding can be routed via the parents and the choices they make, while independence for schools and teachers will result in striving for excellence once again. The sad part is that a generation of children perish in the breach until this is done, and a generation of lives miss out on the opportunities they could have known. Until then, alas poor Scotland…
Madsen Pirie's "101 Great Philosophers" makes an excellent Christmas present.