Education: SNP's report card leaves room for improvement
If the past academic year was represented in a school report card, it might be one which John Swinney ‘accidentally’ lost or fed to his dog to stop his parents seeing it.
With controversy after controversy – the threat of teacher strikes, the scrapping of the education bill and the P1 testing saga, to name but a few – it certainly wasn’t an academic record which was likely to earn many gold stars.
As the Scottish Greens put it: “The SNP’s education report card could be defined by one line: ‘needs improvement’.”
Swinney was already on the backfoot as the 2018/19 academic year got underway, with rumblings of the first national teacher strike since the 1980s getting louder and louder.
It got to the point where members of the EIS – Scotland’s largest teaching union – voted to move to a statutory ballot for industrial action at the start of the year, before a pay deal was brokered at the eleventh hour.
Swinney said the fresh offer made to teachers would provide the “stability we need to make the reform Scotland’s education system needs and deliver the best possible outcomes for our young people”.
If only it were that simple.
Sadly, “reforming Scotland’s education system” might take a bit more effort than simply giving teachers extra money.
Despite Nicola Sturgeon declaring that she wanted the SNP government to be judged on its record in education, there are less than two years left to make this record one to be proud of rather than one that is only remembered because of its failings.
She consistently sweeps away any criticism relating to narrowing subject choice or the attainment gap, choosing instead to repeat one of her favourite lines: that there has been an increase in the number of pupils leaving school with five Highers or more.
And while indeed this is true – in 2009, 22 per cent of pupils achieved this and now there are more than 30 per cent achieving this – the bigger picture is far bleaker.
The recently published Education Outcomes for Looked After Children statistics revealed that just 39 per cent of looked-after children had one or more National 5 qualifications, compared with 86 per cent for all pupils.
And the same statistics also revealed that just 4.5 per cent of looked-after children went into higher education three months after leaving school compared with 41 per cent of all school leavers.
While there was also an acknowledgement that the attainment gap has narrowed over the last five years, the statistics from 2017-18 speak for themselves and are surely not a legacy the SNP would want to leave behind.
Indeed, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, Iain Gray, described the figures as a “national embarrassment”.
And in amongst Swinney’s positive spin on the stats, he too acknowledged “there is more to do to ensure that all our young people have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential in life and succeed – regardless of their background.”
This is why news last month that Scotland’s 18 universities have committed to giving care-experienced university applicants a “guaranteed” undergraduate offer, if they meet minimum entry requirements, is to be applauded.
The guarantee is part of a collective push among universities to boost the number of looked-after students in higher education.
In welcoming the universities’ collective commitment, Sturgeon said: “Education is by far the most effective means we have of improving the life chances of our young people.
“I am firmly committed to widening access to higher education and ensuring that all learners, regardless of their background, have an equal chance of entering university.
“It is important that every young person has access to the learning that will provide them with the skills and qualifications they need to meet their aspirations and succeed in life.”
But the proof is in the pudding and currently a lot of pupils in Scotland, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are being let down.
According to research carried out by the Scottish Conservatives, pupils in Scotland are taking fewer subjects in S4 now than they were six years ago.
The figures revealed that the vast majority of Scottish S4 pupils used to study for seven or more qualifications, but now only around half of schools enter pupils for that number of subjects.
Currently, there are 165 schools in Scotland where pupils take six subjects or less, whereas in 2013, that figure was only 46.
In contrast, the number of schools where pupils take seven or more has almost halved in that time, from 308 to 182.
A survey of teachers in Scotland – part of the Scottish Parliament inquiry into subject choice – found two-thirds blame staffing problems for the reduction in subject choice in schools.
Despite not being an official option on the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) survey on what influences subject availability, almost 350 out of 500 teachers cited staffing-related issues as the main reason for decreasing subject choice in secondary schools.
And the issue of mixed-level teaching – which has also come under fire – highlights how under-resourcing in schools has led to many being forced to run combined classes where different qualifications are being taught by the same teacher at the same time.
A freedom of information request submitted by the Scottish Conservatives shows that out of the 238 schools who responded, 112 had combined classes for three levels, with a further 11 squeezing in four levels.
Included in the examples set out were Inverclyde Academy, where one class is being taught four different levels of maths at the same time, and Bridge of Don Academy in Aberdeen, which has 40 combined classes.
Earlier this year, the then interim leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Jackson Carlaw, accused Sturgeon of being “in denial” over her pledge to make education her number one priority.
He said: “Her party has been in sole charge of Scotland’s education system since 2007, and she made her own pledge that education would be her top priority on becoming First Minister.
“She’s in denial about that pledge, and the fact is she’s failed to act on it. She now has to explain to Scotland’s pupils and teachers why she’s failed to come good on this promise.”
With the teachers at the chalkface – who are left to pick up all the slack – reporting increased workload and stress levels to their unions, an explanation is the very least they deserve.
As for the pupils, they deserve a commitment to a wider subject choice, improved opportunities and increased attainment across the board, regardless of their background.
And with Audit Scotland revealing it will be carrying out a review of school education outcomes later this year – with a report due to be published in 2020 – the Scottish Government, along with local authorities, will soon have more than just pupils and teachers to answer to.