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Q&A: John Swinney

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Q&A: John Swinney

What has been the personal highlight of this past year been for you in your portfolio?

Every week I visit schools around the country and it is inspiring to see the immensely creative work of our young people.

The Scottish Government has made education a key priority, but there appears to be little success to show for this. Is there still time to turn this round before the next election?

Teacher numbers are up, entries and pass rates for National 5 have increased, the gap between the number of students from the least and most deprived areas gaining a place at university continues to close and the proportion of young people who are in a positive destination within nine months of leaving school is now the highest on record. Scottish education has much to be proud of.

Strong international evidence shows that empowered schools and engaged parents lead to a better education. That is why we are ensuring that decisions about children’s learning and school life are made by those who know them best.

Our work throughout the year, in partnership with local government, teacher representatives and the wider education sector, has made significant progress and I am confident this will continue. 

Teachers report that a lack of specialist support for children with additional support needs is leading to serious behavioural issues and even violence in classrooms. How will you resolve this, more funding for specialist support or do you need to rethink mainstreaming?

I am absolutely committed to improving the quality of classroom support where it is needed but it is important to recognise that decisions relating to staffing are a matter for local authorities.

Provision of specialist support will vary from authority to authority based on the needs of their individual young people but they all have a duty to identify, provide for and review the support they offer for children and young people with additional support needs. 

Scotland has one of the most inclusive education systems in the world when it comes to the provision of support in schools and the cornerstone of this is the presumption of mainstreaming for those with additional support needs. 

There remains strong cross party support for our inclusive approach to education and the presumption of mainstreaming and we know that significant numbers of children and young people and their families have benefited as a result.

I know there is still more to do and that is why I committed to an independently chaired review of the implementation of Additional Support for Learning, including where children learn. 

By taking a collaborative approach, working with local authorities and the third sector, I believe our education system can match our extremely ambitious aspiration to provide a truly inclusive education system which is an example for all countries around the world.

The parliament voted against standardised testing in P1 and it is opposed by teachers and educational experts. Why have you not abolished it?

I made it clear that I would reconsider the evidence surrounding P1 assessments but any decisions about their future would be based on educational advice to ensure an accurate and informed judgement.

That is why I commissioned an independent, evidence-based review led by David Reedy – former Co-Director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and General Secretary and President of the UK Literacy Association.

The review concluded that the assessments should continue, that they can play a significant role in informing and enhancing teachers’ professional judgement – the very reason these assessments were introduced – and that there is scant evidence of children becoming upset when taking part.

It also found that a majority of interview and survey respondents saw value in the P1 standardised assessments, particularly for supporting teacher professional judgement.

I am not suggesting the findings delivered an unqualified green light to the Scottish Government in terms of P1 assessments, it made important recommendations about improvement and I will act upon these.

As is so often the case in education there are a range of views about how the system should work. I hope that my colleagues from across the chamber will join me in accepting the independent review’s findings and in focusing, as we must, on delivering an education system in Scotland which raises attainment for all, closes the attainment gap, and enables all children and young people to fulfil their potential.

The Education Committee recently highlighted the scrapping of SSLN has generated a data gap of at least five years and the “lack of baseline data” means “no meaningful conclusions” can be reached on upwards or downwards trends. How can the Scottish Government know if any of its education policies are effective without such data?

The review of Scottish education by the OECD in 2015 was clear that as national sampling and reporting of literacy and numeracy did not provide school or local authority level data, it could not be used to target improvement effectively. This informed one of the OECD’s key recommendations about the need to rebalance Scotland’s assessment model.

We explored options for a new assessment model, including expanding the sample size of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy.  However, we concluded that a better way to respond to the OECD’s recommendations was to design an individualised model of assessment, aligned to CfE, and based on the professional judgment of teachers.

The collection of data on Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence levels (ACEL), introduced in 2016, provides performance information on literacy and numeracy of all children in P1, P4, P7 and S3. Along with a wide range of other evidence, the SNSA feeds into that model of assessment and helps teachers to shape teaching and learning, and to support their judgements about children and young people’s progress.

This approach has a number of significant advantages over the SSLN; in particular, the provision of data at school and local authority level, which allows partners to target improvement activity. 

In addition to this the Scottish Government has established a suite of 11 key measures to determine whether progress is being made towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Four of these key measures are drawn from ACEL returns and the rest are already gathered as“official statistics” such as the national qualifications data. Taken together these 11 measures provide rigorous national performance data.

Recent reports have highlighted that upper secondary pupils across Scotland are being taught in multi-level classes of up to four levels, while subject choices have narrowed at S4 from eight to six or even five subjects. Surely this is evidence that a rethink of Curriculum for Excellence is needed?

Multilevel teaching has long been part of Scottish education and there will usually be a variety of attainment levels and experience in any class. Teachers are well-skilled in taking account of the different needs of their pupils.

That is a central tenet of CfE – put pupils at the heart of education.  It personalises education to the individual. It enables young people to build the skills, knowledge and experiences that will prepare them for their life beyond school and provides them with the best possible opportunity to fulfil their potential.

That’s why the guiding principle is that qualifications and awards are taken at the appropriate stage for the individual young person over the three years of the senior phase - the focus is on a young person’s achievement at the end of this, not just within a single year. 

This marks a fundamental shift from the previous model allowing more time for learning and teaching in the subjects that are being studied and more opportunity for studying awards other than ‘traditional’ national qualifications. 

CfE gives local authorities, schools and their partners the freedom to work with young people to design a senior phase curriculum that gives them the skills and knowledge they need and want to achieve their ambitions.

Less than 40 per cent of children from a care background achieve even one National 5 qualification. How is the Scottish Government going to address this?

The level of attainment for young people with a care background is rising but it is still far below that of the rest of the population. This was just one of the range of issues that led the First Minister to commission the Independent Care Review – to improve the life chances of people who are care-experienced and put love at the heart of the care system. That work is crucial to turning round a record that for decades has been a national disgrace. It must change and we are determined that it will.

While the review does its work we have seen progress in education with the percentage getting a SCQF Level 5 (National 5 or equivalent) rising from 31 per cent to 39 per cent in 2017/18. That is real progress which should be celebrated, but there is still a long way to go.

Last year we announced that up to £33 million would be made available over the remainder of this Parliament through the Care Experienced Children and Young People Grant, and local authorities have been working to identify how this funding can best be used to improve attainment for their looked after young people.

This funding is part of the overall £750 million we are investing during this parliament to tackle the attainment gap and ensure every child has an equal chance to succeed.

It is targeted interventions such as these which demonstrate our commitment to improving educational outcomes and ensure that all of our young people have an equal chance to succeed.

Boris Johnson enjoys painting wooden crates. What do you do to unwind?

I run.

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - Sir Paul Grice takes top honour at Scottish Public Service Awards

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