John Swinney: The improvement agenda requires all of our focus
John Swinney - Scottish Government
Since taking up the role of Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills last year, I have had the opportunity to visit dozens of schools across Scotland. In each one, I am struck by the confidence and enthusiasm of our young people, and the great emphasis that is placed on helping every child reach their full potential.
There is already great strength in Scottish education. I am constantly impressed by the passion for learning and teaching that is evident in every classroom I visit – and the determination of everyone involved in education to work together to help our young people be the best they can be.
That is what this government wants to achieve, and it is why education is at the heart of the First Minister’s Programme for Government.
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Since 2007, 651 school-building projects have been completed and the Scottish Government’s £1.8bn Scotland’s Schools for the Future programme will see the construction or refurbishment of 112 schools and will benefit over 60,000 pupils by March 2020.
We have secured teacher numbers, with 253 more full-time equivalent teachers in 2016 than in the previous year. Class sizes are broadly stable and the pupil/teacher ratio has been maintained – and we are working with education institutes on new and innovative ways to recruit more teachers.
We now have more young people achieving excellent exam results: the number of Advanced Higher passes last year reached an all-time high while the number of Highers was second only to 2015’s record pass rate.
Four out of ten students from Scotland’s 20 per cent most deprived areas left school in 2014-15 with at least one Higher or equivalent – double the rate in 2007.
We have more school leavers going on to positive destinations, such as continued education, training or a job. In fact, a record 92 per cent went on to positive destinations in 2014-15, up from 87 per cent in 2007.
And our Curriculum for Excellence has been endorsed by the OECD in its independent review of Scottish education.
Despite these successes, Scotland’s results in the OECD’s most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) made for uncomfortable reading.
I take that extremely seriously, and I am determined to continue to make the improvements that are necessary to make Scottish education world class.
This requires an unwavering focus on improving Scotland’s education system for every child and we will do exactly that.
The OECD review set out very clear areas in which we needed to improve, and we are already taking action in each and every one.
To focus on raising the standards for all and closing the poverty-related attainment gap for our poorest pupils, we have launched the £750m Scottish Attainment Challenge Programme which has already helped thousands of pupils in schools across the country, for example, by directly funding 160 teachers.
This year we are launching the £120m Pupil Equity Fund, which will give schools around £1,200 for each pupil from P1 to S3 known to be eligible for free school meals.
It will be up to teachers and school leaders to decide the best way of using this funding to close the poverty-related attainment gap in their school – and to help them decide, a suite of information about the most successful approaches and interventions, based on practice examples from around Scotland and the best available international evidence, is being made available on the Education Scotland website.
One such example, which I saw for myself recently, is Inzievar Primary School’s walking bus in Oakley which is helping to reduce lateness and absenteeism – a relatively low cost but very effective innovation.
We are implementing the National Improvement Framework, so that we have the evidence to show us what is working – and what is not – in our schools. As part of this work, we have begun publishing information based on teachers’ professional judgement about children’s progress.
Initial data in December showed that most children are achieving the expected Curriculum for Excellence level for their stage. In future years, these statistics will be informed by national standardised assessments.
To simplify and clarify the curriculum, we are stripping away thousands of pages of red tape, freeing teachers to teach.
To put schools and communities at the heart of the education system, we launched a review of governance to change the way the system is organised and put parents, teachers and schools in charge.
And to develop a new strategy to improve leadership in schools, we are bringing in new programmes to train and develop head teachers including making it mandatory by August 2019 for all new head teachers in local authority and grant-aided schools to hold the Standard of Headship awarded by the General Teaching Council of Scotland.
These recommendations form the basis of the reform agenda we are now taking forward.
Fundamentally, Scotland has a good education system, with great teachers and engaged pupils.
To suggest otherwise is to do a massive disservice to our young people and teachers. The reforms we are taking forward will build on these strengths.
They will ensure our teachers focus on improving teaching and learning in our schools. They will see parents empowered to play a more meaningful role in their children’s education. And they will deliver a system that promotes collaboration and is focused on improvement.
Our actions will ensure that every child will leave primary school with core skills in reading, writing and numeracy and will have the opportunity to develop more advanced literacy and numeracy skills in secondary.
Our reform programme is bold, ambitious and, in parts, controversial.
A strength of Scotland’s education system has always been in collaboration, a sense of national shared endeavour.
It is now essential that we all focus our efforts on our improvement agenda to achieve a world-class education system for young people in Scotland.