Must do Better: How the SNP is barely scraping a pass on education
In 2015, less than a year into her tenure as first minister, Nicola Sturgeon urged voters to judge her on her government’s education record.
Specifically, Sturgeon pledged to tackle Scotland’s attainment gap, the yawning divide between those from the most deprived areas and their more affluent peers.
The First Minister deserves credit for staking her reputation on an issue which had proved so intractable in the past, a problem so deep-seated that a succession of well-intentioned policy initiatives made little impact.
Yet if we are to judge the Scottish Government’s education record solely on reducing the attainment gap, then it barely scrapes a pass.
While it’s true the gap has narrowed, progress has been limited.
According to the Scottish Government’s own statistics, the attainment gap in literacy for P1, P4 and P7 pupils combined has reduced from 22.1 percentage points in 2016/17 to 20.7 percentage points in 2018/19.
For numeracy, there is a gap of 16.8 points, down from 17.6 points in 2016/17.
Across all three age groups, the Scottish Government says the gap has narrowed because the proportion of pupils achieving the expected literacy and numeracy levels has increased slightly more for pupils from the most deprived areas than those from more affluent areas.
But Lindsay Paterson, a professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, says the gap is narrowing because those from more affluent areas are going backwards.
“Inequality has got lower not because the least advantaged pupils are getting better, it’s because the most advantaged pupils are sinking,” he says.
“On average, Scotland just stagnated for the last 10 years. But for the most advantaged students, we’ve actually gone backwards.”
For pupils in the third year of secondary school, performance in literacy barely changed between 2016/17 and 2018/19, with the attainment gap actually increasing from 13.6 points to 13.8 points during that period. In numeracy, the gap reduced from 14.9pts to 13.5pts.
Paterson thinks the situation will eventually lead to “political trouble” for the SNP, which has, after all, asked to be judged on this very issue.
“It doesn’t seem to be consistent with the principles of equal opportunities and all the other things that underpin comprehensive education that you get more equality by bringing down the best pupils rather than raising the lowest,” Paterson says.
And while the constitution has dominated Scottish politics for much of the past five years, education remains one of the issues likely to cut through with the electorate.
Indeed, a recent poll by Ipsos MORI found education to be the second-most important issue for voters, second only to another independence referendum, but ahead of both the NHS and the pandemic.
To further compound matters, the early indications are that enforced school closures as a result of COVID are likely to hit hardest those from the poorest backgrounds, those children who need the structure and educational support of the classroom the most.
Researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) have found that school closures are likely to exacerbate educational inequalities, with far-reaching implications for those from the poorest backgrounds.
The analysis, published in January, found parents from the highest 20 per cent of incomes were over four times more likely to supplement their children’s learning with private tuition than those from the lowest 20 per cent.
The researchers also cited emerging evidence from elsewhere in the Europe which showed that school closures have widened achievement gaps between the poorest pupils and their more privileged peers.
With all primary school pupils returning to school full-time this week and all secondary pupils returning on a part-time basis, it is hoped things are beginning to return to normal.
But how to catch up on all that lost learning?
In England, the government has appointed an education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins.
Sir Kevan, the so-called “catch-up tsar”, has warned that schools could be working for the next five years to help children make up for the “profound shock” of lost learning.
The Scottish Government has its own COVID-19 education recovery group, chaired by Deputy First Minister John Swinney.
The government has also pledged an additional £60m of investment in education recovery, including money to employ more teachers and classroom support staff.
Last month, the First Minister said the government would consider a range of measures, including summer schools, to help the most affected pupils catch up on what they had missed.
Responding to a question at Holyrood about introducing a “version of summer school”, she said: “I think all these things we should properly consider.
“There is a big job of work to be done, which will not be completed quickly, to ensure the impact on our young people doesn’t turn into a long-term impact they are saddled with for the rest of their lives.”
But it’s not just school pupils who have seen their education badly disrupted by the pandemic.
Those in higher education have also been forced to rely on remote learning, depriving them not only of face-to-face teaching time, but also many of the opportunities for socialising that are an important part of university life.
Universities including Edinburgh and St Andrews have already announced that most learning will continue to be done online for the rest of the current academic year, meaning students will not return until September at the earliest.
However, a more significant problem for our young people may be the downturn in the graduate jobs market as a result of COVID.
Statistics published last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that while unemployment rose for all graduates during the pandemic, the rise was more pronounced among those who have recently completed their education.
Average unemployment for recent graduates peaked at 12 per cent in the third quarter of last year, although it remains below the overall youth unemployment rate, which stood at 13.6 per cent.
While the immediate priority is the safe return of schools, colleges and universities, in the longer term, the pandemic will inevitably lead to changes in the jobs market and a reassessment of skills-based education.
The Scottish Government’s youth employment strategy, Developing the Young Workforce, is being bolstered by the Young Person’s Guarantee, which was introduced last year due to the pandemic.
The £60m initiative has the backing of firms including SSE, Capgemini and Standard Life Aberdeen, and hopes to offset the damage done to the employment prospects of the young, the group disproportionately affected by the economic downturn.
In another initiative, a new skills board has been created by trade body ScotlandIS to help plug a gap in the digital sector.
The new board, which is made up of those from the education and digital technology sectors, aims to tackle a skills gap which it says led to more than 13,000 unfilled vacancies across the country pre-pandemic.
The board’s chair, Paul Houlden, says the pandemic has shown it’s time for a “sea change” in how skills education is delivered.
“Anybody who suggests it’s going to be more of the same for the next ten years has probably got it seriously wrong,” he says.
Houlden thinks there needs to be a blending together of home learning and traditional teaching where young people interact with their peers.
“Vocational learning has been somewhat sidelined when compared with perhaps more fashionable courses, but we’ve got to get a better balance.
“Before the virus, there were 13,300 jobs unfulfilled in the tech sector in Scotland. It was seriously bad news because we couldn’t fill them. We needed more senior developers, engineers…ScotlandIS is looking at a tech visa to encourage people from outside the UK to move to Scotland (to take up these jobs).”
When it comes to getting Scotland’s education system back on a firm footing after the pandemic, Paterson believes there is a need for more assessment, not just domestically but in comparisons with international competitors.
He says one necessary measure is for Scotland to re-join the international studies it has left in recent years – Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).
“It’s not as if Scotland is sinking fast or anything like that, it’s average,” he says. “But, of course, it used to be above average when devolution came about.
“The claims of the current government were not just that they were going to keep things the same, but that they were going to improve things. All the evidence we have is that things are not getting better...”
Last month, MSPs passed a motion calling for an overhaul of both the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland.
The Lib Dems, who brought forward the motion, said there had been “serious concerns” about the two bodies for years and that, during the pandemic, they had “not met the expectations or requirements of hardworking teachers, pupils or parents”.
The education secretary said the bodies did not deserve the “pathetic” and “shabby” criticism being levelled at it.
But Paterson is also scathing in his assessment of the SQA, particularly the way it has failed to support pupils and teachers during the pandemic.
“We’ve seen complete incompetence from the SQA,” he says. “Their complete incapacity to do anything very sensible has really been quite astonishing.
“They have repeatedly failed to come up with any credible alternative forms of assessment that teachers could use to estimate students’ grades.”
Overall, his assessment of education under the SNP is fairly bleak.
Asked how he would judge Sturgeon’s government’s record on education, he says: “Since Sturgeon became first minister, there’s been no improvement. She’s achieved nothing.”
Whichever party forms the next government after May – and all the indications are that it will be the SNP – it will have its work cut out when it comes to improving education.
The initial challenge will be to get pupils and students back into the classroom in a way that is safe and doesn’t lead to a spike in the number of COVID infections. It will be no easy task.
But even that daunting challenge may yet prove to be more straightforward than addressing some of the long-term challenges which have held back too many of our children for too long.