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Price of a penny - education tops the Holyrood election agenda

Price of a penny - education tops the Holyrood election agenda

All parties in the 2016 Holyrood election campaign have put education at the forefront of their policy portfolios.

One party says it will use Scotland’s new powers to “support Scotland’s young people and to grow our economy”. Another says “the most important economic investment any government can make is in education”. 

“It is essential we give all children the best possible start in life,” says another, while a rival pledges to help “everyone to reach their potential, no matter where they’re from”.


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You could be forgiven for struggling to identify the source of each quote. Opportunities for all is, after all, standard pre-election fare from all parties. 

For behind every ‘bold new initiative’ is a consensus on what challenges need to be addressed and an unwillingness to unduly rock the boat of an education system still admired internationally.

“Scotland has an historic high regard for learning, education and teachers, and the trust it invests in teachers’ professional judgment is admirable,” said the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its commissioned report in December.

In Improving Schools in Scotland: An OECD Perspective, it called for a new, bold phase for Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), the implementation of which is nearly complete.

CfE, intended as a seamless curricular model from age three to 18, itself represents a continuation of a tradition of broad general education based on the twin principles of equity and excellence, which arguably stretches back for centuries but was crystallised in the formation of the comprehensive schools system 50 years ago.

The OECD’s suggestions for a new name? ‘The Curriculum for Excellence and Equity’ or ‘The Scottish Curriculum’. 

Levels of equality and academic achievement in Scottish schools are above international averages, according to the global organisation.

But while this sounds like a glowing report for the SNP’s record and an inconvenient truth for critics, the truth is, of course, much more complicated.

In fact, the only national method of measuring standards in primary schools, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, has indicated both literacy and numeracy levels are in decline.
But the survey itself is only carried out bi-annually and uses class-based samples, prompting the Scottish Government to legislate for standardised assessments. 

Despite fears this could lead to a return of high-stakes testing and school league tables from some quarters, the move has been supported by both Conservatives and Labour, as well as being seemingly endorsed by the OECD report.

“Current national assessment arrangements in Scotland do not provide sufficiently robust information, whether for system-level policy-making, or for local authorities or an individual school or across important domains of CfE for learners and their teachers,” it said.

On other aspects of its record, the SNP faces a less easy ride. The party came to power in 2007, and a lot has happened since. 

It holds up two flagship policies of free university tuition and childcare expansion as examples of success, but examination of other promises made at that time tell a more nuanced story.

A reduction in class sizes, much vaunted as a policy in 2007, failed to materialise. After a pledge to protect teacher numbers, they plummeted to a ten-year low and would have fallen further had the Scottish Government not entered into a damaging row with local authorities over a guarantee.

The SNP plans to increase funded hours of ‘childcare’ from 600 to 1,140 per year by 2020. In the 2007 manifesto however it was called ‘nursery education’, and included a pledge to provide access to a fully qualified nursery teacher for every child. 

Teaching union the EIS now reports a 29 per cent reduction in the numbers of GTCS-registered teachers employed in early years over the last decade, down to a level of one teacher for every 84 children.

And while the SNP regards education as a political priority, opposition parties argue it has not been backed up by investment.

Developing a new curriculum, a young and qualified workforce and widening and improving access to university all cost money but, broadly, government funding for schools, colleges and universities has gone down.

The restructuring of the college sector into regional public bodies has led to a 12 per cent drop in Scottish Government funding since 2011, while Scotland’s universities face a £35m cut in funds from the Scottish Research Council next year.

In February the Local Government Benchmarking Framework reported councils had reduced education spending for schools by £300m over the last five years. This had been done by “prioritising services” and “efficiency savings”.

Outside of ringfenced areas, these savings have been substantial, as illustrated during a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee. Councillors told the committee education budgets were being trimmed “round the edges”, which included “low hanging fruit” like specialist music and art tuition as well as support for staff and pupils with additional support needs.

COSLA’s education spokesperson Councillor Stephanie Primrose told MSPs: “We will have to consider what one might consider peripheral things. We are talking here about music teaching and school transport, which has, as you are aware, a statutory element to it.

“One of the things that really concerns me - I do not apologise for raising this - is although our most vulnerable children require services from social work, educational psychologists, family workers, case workers and so on, those are the services we will have to consider cutting, because we have to protect our core. 

“You really need to take that into consideration. If we want our young children to achieve what they want to achieve and what they can achieve, they need to be safe and healthy, and they need to be able to cope emotionally with education.”

Scotland’s national youth work agency, Youthlink Scotland, has released a manifesto urging parties to protect and grow services that support youth work in schools.

Chief executive Jim Sweeney said: “If we are really going to tackle the educational attainment gap then we need to realise that not all young people respond to school, they need another path, another approach that engages them and keeps them on their learning journey.

“A solid partnership with formal education would ensure all our young people can learn in a way that inspires them.”

And last year the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition revealed the number of Additional Support for Learning Teachers dropped 13 per cent in four years.

In this fiscal environment, evidence CfE is fulfilling its stated purpose of broadening and deepening learning is hard to find. Indeed, there have been fears over the future quality of specialist teaching.

West Dunbartonshire is the latest council to try and merge school departments under faculty heads while cutting pastoral teachers. Teachers resisted this with industrial action. 

In at least one of Scotland’s registered teacher training universities, subject teachers are not being assessed by teachers in their own subjects anymore.

Of particular concern is teaching in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) where Scotland suffers from skills gaps in related areas.

And attracting teachers to these and other vital subjects is becoming increasingly difficult. Last year over 100 teacher training places went unfilled despite new government targets.

The Scottish Government aims to train 146 maths teachers a year, but only 76 places were filled in 2015.

Similarly, while Scotland faces an acute skills gap in information technology, the number of computing teachers has fallen by 25 per cent.

Despite their financial restrictions, councils in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Moray, the Highlands, Orkney and Shetland spent more than £1m advertising for 270 vacant teaching jobs last year.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) has stressed the importance of subject-specific expertise in teacher training. 

“Realising the potential of Curriculum for Excellence, including its innovative features such as interdisciplinary learning, is dependent on a reinvigorated approach to teacher professionalism.

“This has implications for the status, quality, confidence, recruitment, training, career-long professional review and development, and retention of science and mathematics teachers in Scotland,” the RSE reported in October.

According to the last EIS member survey, only one in three teachers would recommend the profession to others, after implementation of CfE’s senior phase saw a rise in assessments and teacher workload, exactly the opposite of its stated aims. 

Despite the challenges, attainment has been high in Scotland. Students across Scotland achieved a record 156,000 Higher passes last year, while 93 per cent of school leavers went on to positive destinations like further or higher education, training or employment, according to Scottish Government data published in March on the Parentzone website.

What has seen less improvement, and what the politicians in this election campaign are more focused on, is the gap in attainment between the most and least deprived communities across the country.

The Parentzone data also reveals those in the most deprived areas, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), achieved an average tariff score of 610, half that achieved by those in the most affluent quintile.

“While the performance for children from the most deprived areas has improved year on year, in the last 12 months this improvement has slowed and is improving at a slower rate than of the total population,” the OECD report noted.

With such geographic inequality on show, can the system really be called comprehensive? 

And while the policy of free university tuition for domestic students has been a source of pride for the SNP, it doesn’t appear to have widened access to university. Figures from UCAS show 18-year-olds from SIMD5 communities are more than four times as likely to enter university as those from the SIMD1 most deprived communities.

Additional widening access places at universities were funded by the Scottish Government after Nicola Sturgeon said it would be a priority when she became leader in 2014. The first year did bear fruit, with an increase in students from SIMD1 and 2.

However, UCAS figures showed still only 9.7 per cent of those accepted to university were from disadvantaged areas in Scotland, compared to 17 per cent in England, 13.9 per cent in Northern Ireland and 15.5 per cent in Wales. 

Furthermore, Education Secretary Angela Constance intervened after the Scottish Funding Council wrote to universities to warn funding for assisted places will not be applied this year. 

A Commission on Widening Access, set up by Sturgeon in 2014 and chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, reported in March with what many regarded as a radical set of “system-wide” recommendations. 

In her introduction to the final report, Silver said Scotland had a “moral, social and economic duty to tackle this inequality. Scotland has a truly world-class higher education system, perhaps the most powerful weapon there is to combat socio-economic inequality.”

Fair access to education, she argued, has an economic imperative. “By failing to fairly distribute the opportunities necessary for all of our people to flourish, Scotland is missing out on the economic potential of some of our finest talents,” she said.

Recommendations in the report include the creation of a commissioner for fair access to develop a framework for improvement, more flexibility and funding for care leavers and, more controversially, embedding positive discrimination within university admissions to give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a leg up.

There were also a number of recommended targets for the next Scottish government around a central aim: to see students from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds representing 20 per cent of entrants to higher education by 2030.

This will only be achieved if universities, colleges, local authorities, schools and early years’ providers work together, it said.

The Blueprint for Fairness was, Silver said, “designed to be deliverable”, and conveniently published just before the election campaign got under way. So with Scotland’s political parties agreed on the priorities, will full adoption of the recommendations appear in all the manifestos? 

The numerical targets were accepted by the Scottish Government. Education Secretary Angela Constance said: “Achieving these will not be the sole responsibility of universities nor indeed just the education system – we will all have to work collectively to this end.”

She was less quick to endorse the other recommendations, which would be given “careful consideration”, she said.

The Scottish Conservatives’ Liz Smith called it a “thoughtful but, at times controversial” report, while Scottish Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur said admission targets were “all very well” but focus should be on early years education.

Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said Scottish Labour would accept the recommendations “in full”, challenging Sturgeon to also accept the recommendation on giving full grants for looked-after children. 

Sturgeon accepted the challenge and went further, promising a guaranteed place to every care leaver who met “minimum entry requirements”.

At an ‘ask the First Minister’ event for young people, she said: “We will ensure that young people who have experience of care, and who meet the minimum entry standards, will be offered a place at university and, in addition to ensuring they have free tuition like all students, we will support them with a full bursary, currently £7,625, from 2017/18.”

Duncan Dunlop, of Who Cares? Scotland, said she had displayed good corporate parenting. “The First Minister is telling young people that they are believed in and that, as their parent, she expects them to succeed,” he said. “That is the kind of message children hear from their parents in living rooms and kitchens across Scotland every day. It shouldn’t be different for young people in care.” 

What may put Sturgeon on the back foot, however, is the question of how to raise the cash for improvements. This Scottish election has become the first fought on tax rather than just spend. The Scottish Liberal Democrats would invest a penny on income tax in education, while Scottish Labour has earmarked the proceeds of a 50p tax band on the same cause, using the penny on all bands to mitigate cuts.

Although she has ruled out a similar rise, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has said she would introduce a graduate levy of £6,000 to raise £100m for colleges and skills. 

There have been questions over exactly how much these ideas would actually raise, butmeanwhile the SNP has advocated freezing income tax, including a rejection of moves by UK Chancellor George Osborne to raise the threshold for those paying the 40p tax band. This has left her criticised from both sides for lacking ambition for education investment.

The OECD report warned against a “scattergun” approach to tackling inequality. “The ambition should not only be to close gaps but also to ‘raise the bar’ for all” when a broad curriculum is in danger of benefiting the better off disproportionately, it said.

2014 research by Edward Sosu and Sue Ellis at the University of Strathclyde for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that while schools can make a difference, attainment has much more to do with parental income inequality than what school a child attends.

It showed that by age five, the gap between children from low-income and high-income households is 10 months in problem-solving development and 13 months in vocabulary.

Lower attainment in literacy and numeracy is linked to deprivation throughout primary school. By age 12 to 14, pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy.

EIS president Pat Flanagan told the Scottish Labour conference: “The cost of the school day highlights it cannot simply be left up to schools. There’s a much wider issue for broader society, for all public services.”

And with 66 per cent of children in poverty living in working households, if political parties want to introduce measures to reduce the link between poverty and attainment, does taxing those parents’ income still count as investment?

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