IGNORANCE IS NEVER BLISSFUL

Westminster Secretaries of State have a long and ignoble history of failing to heed their own research - nowhere more obviously than the Home Office, late residence of the current Prime Minister.  Historically Tory ministers, with a couple of honourable exceptions, have banged the lock-em-up drum at party conference despite decades of statistics telling them very precisely why prison doesn't work for the majority of lawbreakers.

Now Teresa May has picked up her old ministerial blinkers to view the state of education in England, a field already replete with the meddling of successive education secretaries - not least the late Michael Gove a man repeatedly billed as being intellectually gifted when ideological constipation would seem a more accurate diagnosis. But even Gove, godfather of dubious free schools and enforced academisation, didn't think to turn the clock back to the very bad old days of children being labelled academic wheat or chaff before they reached their teens.

May's determination to overturn the received wisdom on creating more grammar schools will have several very predictable effects, almost none of them benign. For every new school created by creaming  off those perceived as academically gifted, several other schools in the same areas will become de facto "secondary moderns" their horizons forcibly narrowed by skewing the diversity of the intake. Everyone from the schools inspectorate to the social mobility "czar" has spelled out exactly why this move is retrograde and ultimately self defeating of its stated objective of widening access and raising standards.  To all of which Ms May has turned a magisterial deaf ear.

She has committed the cardinal sin of taking her own subjective experience of education and used it as a template for the benighted nation, as if the scholastic experience of one middle class girl half a century ago was somehow emblematic of contemporary 21st century needs and good practice. All that would be quite bad enough without the addition of a faith schools free for all.  Or rather free/fee paying for the children of those who think it enlightened to have their children educated to believe that segregation is the key to a comfortable and mature society.  Her decision to encourage more schools whose core purpose is to educate children in a faith based environment is surely utterly perverse in a world where we are trying to encourage tolerance rather than breed sectarianism.

I write this on the morning the traditional rivalries of Rangers and Celtic have been revived in their first premier league encounter for four years.  The fixture, as it always does, will uncover some very unsavoury prejudices amongst a section of their fan bases; people apparently trapped in a 350 year old mindset.  I wouldn't lay that degree of kneejerk ignorance at the door of Scotland's separate school system, but it assuredly doesn't help that we still think sticking kids in different colour blazers and packing them off to separate schools will somehow not encourage the view that they are  inherently different human beings.  The education act of 1918 meant that religious schools would come under the state system, paid for from the education budget, but still able to hire staff on the basis of their faith and run their curriculum accordingly.

This, in essence, is what May will produce in England - schools paid for by all taxpayers, but open to those who espouse a particular belief system.  It's a variation on Gove's "Free" Schools  which education authorities deprived of any oversight were still required to finance, and which have already come to grief in several instances as the intitial enthusiasm of the evangelists waned, or the educational standards and staff quality were found wanting. I rather hope our own teaching staff n Scotland, irritated as they might have been by the changes following a long incubated Curriculum for Excellence, might be moved to reflect that they haven't been subjected to the perpetual revolution visited on their English counterparts.

For this latest bout of "reforms" in England, just as those in a health service the Conservatives promised would be free of any further top down reorganisation - pause for hollow laughter - does serve as arresting illumination of just how far policy streams have now diverged north and south of the border.  Nobody would argue that the NHS in Scotland is free of pressure or problems; nobody would suggest that we don't have the much advertised "attainment gap" in our schools system.  But crucially these defects are being addressed by non confrontational means, by at least attempts to gain cross party support for those initiatives to which service professionals, practitioners and recipients can all sign up.

If there is to be another new Independence referendum its success will, by general agreement, be largely determined by having plausible answers to difficult economic conundrums.  But underpinning that will surely be  a clear cut appreciation that we are indeed two different nations now treading quite different pathways in terms of making our society smarter, healthier, and more secure.  I would even argue that there is now a more discernible philosophical gulf between Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives and their colleagues in the south, than between them and the SNP government to which they form the opposition. Not that anyone in either party is ever likely to say so!