Education policy lacks coherence

Written by Dani Garavelli on 20 June 2017 in Comment

Education was one of the key issues of the general election in Scotland

Dani Garavelli - Nick Grigg/Holyrood

WHEN I was vox-popping voters around the country in the run-up to the general election, there were two issues those disaffected with the SNP consistently raised without prompting. One was, of course, indyref2. The other was education.

First a caveat: such complaints are not incontrovertible proof something is amiss. We know voters parrot soundbites, and Ruth Davidson had been pushing the notion the Scottish education system was broken pretty hard. Hence, many interviewees told me one in five pupils leave primary “functionally illiterate”, even though – as investigative website The Ferret established – this is untrue.

On the other hand, you would have to be blindly loyal not to have any worries about the Scottish Government’s handling of schools. You can argue the toss about the reliability of the PISA and Scottish Survey of Numeracy and Literacy statistics, but there’s no real escaping that when it comes to educational standards, the trend is down.


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Equally, although Nicola Sturgeon staked her reputation on the narrowing of the attainment gap, affluent pupils continue to outperform poorer ones, while committing to free university tuition has not increased access to higher education for students from the most deprived backgrounds.

Underlying causes for the current malaise are not difficult to unearth. There have been well-documented problems with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence which, instead of empowering teachers as it was supposed to has become a bureaucracy-laden, assessment-heavy nightmare.

Not only has the number of teachers fallen dramatically in some areas, so too has the number of support staff, with some councils axing a number of principal teacher posts. Scotland is now in a grip of a recruitment crisis, with 700 full and part-time posts unfilled, but with low morale and a perceived lack of promotion opportunities, it is proving hard to attract bright young graduates.

On top of this, there have been cuts to further education colleges; as I write, they face the prospect of further strikes because some say they are so debt-laden they cannot afford to pay the promised new salary scale.

Sturgeon understands education is the party’s Achilles heel; that is why she shifted John Swinney, her biggest hitter, over from finance. Unfortunately, Swinney has struggled to get on top of the brief. Since he took over, there has been a flurry of announcements. As part of an overhaul of school governance, for example, he has committed to giving headteachers control over their own budget and to setting up 'regional education collaboratives' to encourage co-operation between schools in different council areas.

Before Swinney was appointed, Sturgeon had already pledged to introduce standardised tests in primary and, more recently, the Scottish Government announced it planned to tackle the recruitment crisis with its own version of Teach First, an initiative that fast-tracks graduates into a classroom.

There’s a lack of coherence to all this; it’s as if those in charge were drowning and grabbed at the first few policies they saw in the hopes they would keep them afloat. Most of those policies have since been criticised by the teaching profession.

The EIS was wary about standardised testing, while others warned it would widen rather than narrow the attainment gap (as parents look at the results and move their children to ‘better-performing’ schools) and further encourage ‘teaching to the exam’. 

The Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland told Swinney primary school heads have no desire to be accountants, while the Royal Society of Edinburgh said that in Sweden the devolution of financial responsibility to individual schools coincided with a dip in standards.

Yet it was, arguably, news of Teach First that caused the most agitation. Surely the way to improve teaching is to make it a high-status profession attractive to the highest calibre of applicants, not rush graduates through the door to make up the numbers? 

As lecturer and commentator James McEnaney has pointed out, CfE was a resource-heavy idea conceived in a time of plenty and implemented in a time of austerity, but it is not without merit.

The Scottish Conservatives would like a review, which is not a bad idea so long as the focus is on establishing what went wrong (and fixing it) as opposed to starting again from scratch. Teachers are weary and morale is not going to be improved by a constant state of flux.

Even more pressing is the need to mitigate the damaging effect of poverty before children reach P1 (when the attainment gap is already entrenched).

The SNP has put a lot of emphasis on early years, investing in the extension of free childcare provision, but we still have an ad-hoc system in which many nurseries do not have a qualified teacher. The party is working to increase the number of childcare graduates and teachers in the most deprived areas, promising an extra 435 by 2018. What is required is consistent, high-quality provision that will improve children’s life chances.

Whether or not the SNP decides to park indyref2, Sturgeon needs to get a grip on all this and fast. Because voters took her at her word. They judged her on her education record and they found it wanting.

 

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