This is what absolutely failed

by | 16 May 2023

The Child Commissioner's comments might have been marginally too strong, but understanding why tells us a lot about what is going wrong in government and why

You don’t get this from me often but departing Child Commissioner Bruce Adamson was slightly too hard on the Scottish Government’s track record on children and poverty. Not a lot, but a bit. This tells us a number of things which are important for the Government to pay attention to as it moves on.

So first, what was too hard about his comments and why (at my guess) did he make them so? Both questions are important, and are reflected in other current policy issues I’ll mention below. Let’s start with why the comments were a touch hard.

Basically it is measurably correct to say that the Scottish Government failed in its own stated goal of closing the poverty-related education gap. It didn’t, and despite its various attempts over the years to source evidence to the contrary, it was never on track to do so. But it is also fair to say that the primary determinant of that failure is enduring poverty, and that is predominantly a Westminster issue.

We are living with the long aftermath of austerity. The data on the impacts of austerity are increasingly stark. But we then lived through Covid and that put further great stress on the social fractures austerity had put in place. Simply put, it was close to impossible for the Scottish Government to turn around the attainment gap under those conditions in that timescale.

And it did a couple of good things. Claiming the child payment as a big achievement is a bit much given that it was only taken seriously seven years after it was first proposed in government and six years after the attainment gap boast. It is very expensive and is now clearly having a knock-on effect, not on funding for tycoons (that money keeps flowing) but on universal free school meals.

It is possible to argue that that policy is actually more efficient at achieving outcome goals (it can be argued the other way) and the result is these policies seem to be being traded off against each other. Yet they should be acknowledged as valuable. The free bus pass thing persuades me less – a good policy but in a million years it won’t close the attainment gap.

So Adamson should have been more critical of Westminster and acknowledge a couple of good things done. But this is on the margins, because in every possible way this has been an absolute failure. Which raises the second question – why is there proving to be such a harsh re-evaluation of policy-making over the last eight years?

For the first time in a decade the Scottish Government isn’t really in a position to punish people for being critical

There is so much to be said about this but I want to give three quick perspectives. First, it is happening because it should have been said much more loudly and much more frequently over those eight years. Pick the education attainment gap; while the Scottish Government is trying to get you to look at free school meals, that wasn’t actually the Scottish Government’s plan for the attainment gap.

That was quite different. What Nicola Sturgeon did was write a new education policy all by herself. In fact she sketched it out after a half-day visit to a school in London. Her ‘vision’ was a combination of charismatic leadership, deregulation and testing. Her plans were to have schools run by visionary headteachers set free from stultifying local government control.

Teachers would be able to ‘disrupt’ by having their own budgets with high degrees of autonomy. Meanwhile by introducing standardised testing teachers would ‘suddenly’ have the ‘data’ they lacked to ‘fix’ the failing pupils. The fact that teachers already had that knowledge because they work with these children every day and are trained to assess their progress didn’t get in the way.

And all of this was supported by… nobody. Literally nobody. When the Scottish Government were challenged to find a single academic or educationalist who would support this stuff they pulled out two names of academics who angrily snapped back that they did not support this policy in any way and were very angry to have their names associated.

It all fell apart. That there is not much greater awareness of how much and how completely that agenda fell apart is why there is more kickback now. The policy agenda failed because the policy agenda was very badly constructed in the first place.

Why was that? This is my second observation. It failed because it didn’t go through a proper policy development process. I’ve tried and tried to explain this; you develop policy by having an idea, testing it, doing at least some basic proof of concept work and then talking to a few experts to see how it will be received. Then you announce it.

What you should not do is decide what image you want to project for yourself (say ‘mother of the nation’), work out what speech makes you look like that person, make that speech and then ask people to run off and paint the roses red for you. And that’s what’s been happening for eight years.

So why are we hearing about this now? Because (my third observation) you couldn’t say it before. If you criticised the Scottish Government in that era you were finished. I’ve highlighted the Poverty Tsar Naomi Eisenstat as a case study but I can list you plenty other organisations who were ‘in’ until they raised a mild criticism and then were never talked to again.

This was widespread knowledge in civic Scotland. The first time I was certain about how bad it was was at a civic coalition meeting I attended from Common Weal in 2017 (I won’t mention the subject area, but I could pick half a dozen similar examples). To open the meeting we went round the table for updates. It was pretty innocuous.

Then it was me. I was the only person at the table not in receipt of some kind of public funding so was more free to speak. I expressed my strong frustration with what was happening in this policy area. And then, spontaneously, we went back round the group again – and every single person expressed even more frustration than I had. They were just scared to say it.

But now they can. For the first time in a decade the Scottish Government isn’t really in a position to punish people for being critical. I suspect people are therefore catching up with their criticism now. There is so, so much to criticise.

The time to take a breath and have a calm conversation with the legal profession about these proposals is before you publish them

Every weekend is a bad weekend for Nicola Sturgeon now and by yesterday she was clearly desperate because she was having an article placed in the Guardian to take one last shot at her ‘I’m actually the only grown up in the room’ persona. (The Guardian is the last outfit in Britain to buy this shit from her and even it was wary of her in its news coverage.) She wants us to ‘take a breath’ over the proposed changes to rape trials.

I was aghast at her gall. The time to take a breath and have a calm conversation with the legal profession about these proposals is before you publish them. I can’t explain this enough; how the Scottish Government didn’t know this would result in a unanimous boycott on the part of all the Bar associations is so far beyond my comprehension I can’t come to terms with it.

Did no-one in the Scottish Government discuss this with anyone? No-one at at, not a Spad, not a Minister, not a civil servant, not a researcher, not a proxy? No-one? How? How is that possible? It is absolutely clear that Nicola Sturgeon had decided this was going to happen (given that she’d basically said it would) and got the ever-pliant Lady Dorrian to do a quick rubber-stamp of what was obviously a done deal.

In government, when you reach a dispute, you have two options – the take a breath option and the tank ahead option. The tank ahead option is the one where you force everything through against the will of a group of people. That’s how you reform things that don’t want to be reformed. The breathe option is very specific – it’s you that is supposed to take the breath.

There has been so much of this. The Deposit Return Scheme was announced and pushed to the verge of law before the problems had been solved. The same is true of the gender reform legislation and the child human rights legislation. And the Hate Crime Act. It’s why the Government can’t build ferries and its why it had to drop a National Energy Company.

It’s why ‘The Promise’ is such a total waste of time (that one is literally named after a politician’s utterly ill-informed ‘promise’ to kids in care because she wanted to be their saviour). It’s why the National Care Service is such a running mess. It’s why everything failed.

I’m pretty disillusioned with the civil service. It should have prevented all of this happening. Ten or fifteen years ago it would have. But its previous leader Leslie Evans seems to have converted the civil service into a vanity project for one individual leader, and we’re all paying the price. Cabinet should have stood up to this long ago (some did – and were removed from office).

But there is a single point of failure in all of this. The point of failure is not the attainment gap (failure though it is). It isn’t a Children’s Commissioner gone rogue or something. The single point of failure is Sturgeonism. And we’re going to be living with the fall-out for quite a while.

People think Sturgeon is finished because of Branchform (some in turn think a damp squib outcome without charges rehabilitates her). But the reason Sturgeon should be consigned to history isn’t whatever probably petty crap she and her husband may or may not have been getting up to. It’s because she was a poor leader who made dreadful policy.

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