Analysis: a year in Scottish education - a steep learning curve

Written by Tom Freeman on 4 September 2017 in Inside Politics

After a year of SNP minority government there is still a lack of clarity over the future of Scottish education

Test - credit Melanie Holtsman

Appointing Deputy First Minister John Swinney to the education brief was an attempt to illustrate how prominent the topic was on the Scottish Government’s list of priorities. 

Specifically, closing the persistent gap between the attainment of pupils from the richest and poorest children has been identified as a primary target for government reforms.

But if Swinney thought his first year in the job would provide an opportunity to stamp some vision and authority onto those reforms, he would find the going a little trickier than anticipated.


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In an interview with Holyrood in October, Swinney said he was finding the role “exciting and exhilarating”, having stripped away “literally thousands of pages” of confusing guidance for teachers, established an international council of education advisers, opened a long-running review of the governance of schools and announced a funding stream straight into the hands of head teachers.

“This will be a reforming government on education,” he told Holyrood.

But there was to be no substantive education legislation in the offing. 

It would be a year of consultations and amendments, of layering funding streams and structural changes on top of each other. It would be a year with more questions than answers. 

Disquiet grew over the performance and roles of the main education public bodies, especially exams body the SQA and inspection and improvement quango Education Scotland.

Both organisations experienced a grilling at the hands of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee after direct engagement with working teachers had revealed a lack of trust.

Opposition figures said Education Scotland was “marking its own homework” in a conflict of interests between its work on the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and inspections.

By January, MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee had issued recommendations to the SQA, Education Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council.

Committee convener, James Dornan MSP, said: “There continues to be confusing and contradictory messages coming from the very bodies that should be making it easy for our teachers to focus on the needs of our children.

“We were able to tell these big organisations in no uncertain terms how their actions impact on teachers.

“The committee found it hard to understand how, in particular, the SQA has met the needs of Scotland’s learners having designed qualifications that have created a huge workload for teachers and led to a breakdown in trust and threats of industrial action.”

Meanwhile, planned reforms of the enterprise agencies were given a bloody nose by parliament as the SNP felt the loss of its overall majority in the 2016 election begin to bite.
In December the Scottish Conservatives called for CfE to be put on hold.

“I was and am clear that the principles of CfE are sound,” said the party’s education spokeswoman, Liz Smith. “I am just as clear that the delivery is a complete mess, hence the reason why it should be on probation.”

A Labour motion criticising the Scottish Government’s record was passed by parliament in March. The Scottish Greens backed the motion because the party felt its own proposals were being ignored.

And the Scottish Greens may not have been the only ones feeling ignored. In May Professor Andy Hargreaves, one of Swinney’s senior policy advisers, attacked the reasoning behind the Scottish Government’s key policy of standardised testing, saying it causes “ill-being” in students and devalues teacher judgement.

Speaking at a conference in Rotterdam, Hargreaves said: “More testing means the testing replaces the judgement.”

But pressure to proceed with the roll-out of standardised assessments this summer continued as the annual Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) recorded another dip in the standard of reading and writing.

The biggest drop was in S2 writing, where only 49 per cent of pupils performed well or very well. This is down from 64 per cent in 2012 and 55 per cent in 2014. But perhaps more pressingly for the Scottish Government, there was no progress recorded in narrowing the attainment gap.

“Further reform is now imperative,” said Swinney.

This became the subject of a wide-ranging statement to parliament in June.

Plans included giving head teachers new powers over the curriculum, hiring teachers and closing the attainment gap, as well as the establishment of ‘regional improvement collaboratives’ which will see councils share resources to support schools.

Changes to the structure of Education Scotland were also promised. Everything had the caveat of more consultation. 

Teaching unions were cautious in their welcome to the plans. Scottish Labour was less enthusiastic.

“For John Swinney to suggest that the answer is centralising school budgets is ridiculous. The answer is to stop the SNP’s cuts to schools,” said education spokesperson Iain Gray.

Council umbrella body COSLA reacted furiously to the proposals.

A spokesman said: “There can be no getting away from the fact that the Scottish Government is trying to give the impression that Scotland’s councils still have a role to play in the delivery of education when the reality is that they do not; the simple truth is that there will be no meaningful local democratic accountability for education in Scotland.”

Council budgets have been stretched for some years, with figures showing council spending on additional support for learning in schools has dropped by 11 per cent since 2012 despite a massive increase in demand.

And a scandal over the safety of privately financed schools in Edinburgh revealed the rising costs of contracts for buildings may have been prompted by the private consortium building them to prioritise low cost over build quality.

The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) warned all public bodies to read the report into the Edinburgh schools carefully and urgently inspect the build quality of their capital assets built over the last 20 years. 

The colleges sector, meanwhile, had another difficult year. Although colleges are meeting targets on student numbers, more than three-quarters were forecasting a deficit for the current financial year as far back as October, according to returns sent to the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

To add to the fiscal uncertainty, the colleges also faced industrial disputes over variable pay.

And while universities have pledged their commitment to the widening access agenda and the number of students from deprived communities has risen, the year has been dominated by the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.

The future of European research and development funding is still unknown, and changes to immigration rules will have a big impact on the sector.

“Mobility of talent is at the core of higher education,” Universities Scotland convener Andrea Nolan told Holyrood in October. “We need these opportunities. The UK’s higher education sector cannot be put at risk of stagnation.”

Brexit negotiations are now in full swing, but the sector remains none the wiser. A bit like the rest of us.

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