Scottish education still envy of world, says John Swinney - interview
Is John Swinney “beleaguered”?
The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills does not appear to feel that way, regardless of the criticism being lobbed in his direction.
In the last few months, the problems with Scotland’s school system have come thick and fast. Scotland’s performance in maths and science has slipped, according to the international PISA rankings, which show Scotland at the OECD average and markedly behind England.
An analysis of the 2019 Highers performance last month showed year-on-year drops of up to 10 per cent in some core subjects. Overall, the Higher pass rate was 75 per cent when it had been hovering around 77 per cent for the previous three years. The report’s publication at 8pm on a Thursday night led to accusations the Scottish Government was trying to dodge scrutiny.
There are ongoing concerns about the narrowing of subject choices for pupils in S4, from eight, traditionally, to an average of six. Anxieties persist, too, about the prevalence of multicourse teaching, where teachers have to teach up to three courses at the same time, such as Highers alongside Nationals 4 and 5. Then there are the ongoing teacher recruitment and retention problems, and workload pressures.
Swinney, who is also Deputy First Minister, has been accused of failing to take these issues seriously. He announced a review of the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in September, after a critical report by Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee. Then following a defeat for ministers in a Holyrood vote in January, he added that it would be expanded to review the transition from the broad general education phase (BGE), shorthand for the first three years of secondary school.
When we meet in his parliament office, Swinney is just in from a high school, Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, where he has been delivering a speech about attainment.
If he is feeling besieged, he is showing no sign of it. He is characteristically cheerful – outwardly, at least. But he cannot fail to be conscious of how much is riding on his performance in the area Nicola Sturgeon has identified as her number-one priority.
How important does he think people’s experience of education and other public services is when it comes to persuading them to back Scottish independence?
“I think it is important,” he says firmly. “What people’s lived experience is of our system is really important.”
He believes that experience is positive, mentioning the proportion of young people achieving one or more SCQF level 4, 5 or 6 qualifications [National 4s, National 5s and Highers]. “Yes, there’s been a wee bit of decline over the last year, but in the period of the SNP government, it has increased substantially, in some cases, by 14 per cent.
“So the lived experience is that young people are better qualified, better equipped for the modern world. Ninety-five per cent of young people are leaving school to go to positive initial destinations.”
He agrees that the education system is an important part of Scotland’s identity and is “absolutely confident” that CfE’s approach of promoting broad-based skills is a better approach than the narrower exam-focused approach in England.
But does he really believe Scottish education is still the envy of the world?
“Yes,” he says, without hesitation, adding that there are many aspects that attract international interest and commendation.
Addressing the latest Higher results, he says: “We’ve a pass rate of 75 per cent in Highers. Now I accept that’s lower than it was last year, when it was 77 per cent, but 75 per cent as a pass rate is still exceptionally high for what’s regarded as a very challenging examination. So, I suppose I encourage people to have a view that looks at all of the evidence.
“In the latest PISA scores, there are only five countries in the world that are discernibly better than Scotland in performance in reading. There is progress to be made in maths and science. I accept that, that’s where the focus [is] of our work on the attainment challenge, on improving the foundations of numeracy, on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) strategy.”
So, he can say without reservation that Curriculum for Excellence is a success?
Swinney was state educated, at Forrester High School in Edinburgh, and has a nine-year-old son at primary school (his wife is the BBC journalist Elizabeth Quigley; he also has two grown-up children from his first marriage).
He insists that his opponents are “completely wrong” to say he does not take the problems they highlight seriously, a little irritation perhaps discernible for the first time.
“What they ignore is how I spend my time,” he says. “I spend my time largely talking to teachers, pupils, parents, educators, in almost every context. There isn’t a day goes by when I’m not immersed in some conversation with people, either formally, like this morning or the informality of standing at the touchline of football matches that my son is playing in and asking teachers what they think.
“Of course, there are issues, I’m not for a minute saying there aren’t, but generally, on the whole, do people think young people in Scotland are getting a good, high-quality education that is focused on making sure every young person gets the best prospects they can? I think, generally, that’s people’s experience.
“Yes, there will be issues, there will be shortages of teachers in different disciplines, there will be concerns about whether it’s appropriate for young people to select six qualifications or eight in S4.
“I could put two distinguished educators in the room and one would argue for six and one would argue for eight.”
But there’s alarm about a narrowing of choice no one signed up for, which is seen as threatening the precious broad-based nature of Scottish education. How does he respond?
He simply rejects this view: “That is where I think the fundamental flaw in the analysis is, about narrowing,” he says. “I understand the analysis, but it ignores the fact that structurally, under CfE, we conceived of a BGE over eight curricular areas extending to the end of S3. When I was at school, it finished at S2, so I would contend that the breadth of education is being sustained by that arrangement.”
Maybe, but in the old system, pupils, typically, took eight subjects at the end of S4, compared to six on average now.
“I understand the point of view but it’s not consistent with how CfE was designed. CfE was designed to give young people a three-year senior phase experience.”
During that phase, CfE allows pupils to choose options to suit their needs, he argues. They can still take five Highers in S5, but may also spread them over S5 and S6, or start Foundation Apprenticeships. He highlights the model in South Ayrshire, which offers six subjects in each of S4, S5 and S6, giving a total of 18 (though he accepts that that doesn’t represent 18 different subjects, since pupils will continue some subjects from one year into subsequent years).
“The question comes down to whether you judge it all at a moment in S4 or do you judge it over the senior phase.”
At the heart of the debate is the question of whether the system should be driven by prescription or flexibility, he says, acknowledging that educators continue to debate the two. But it’s clear where his preference lies: “When I listen to practitioners around the country, I feel that that flexibility is playing to their professionalism and their capability to design an approach that meets the needs of young people.”
This does sound as if he is relaxed about pupils taking six subjects in S4.
Swinney is convinced CfE is a more inclusive system than its predecessor and perceives that there is a mindset hanging over from the old system through which CfE is being judged. “The pathway that existed when I went through school was the one that I did [O-Grades, five Highers, university], and it was the only one.
“Now, that’s an education system that’s not addressing 100 per cent of the population. I’m interested in an education system that addresses 100 per cent of the population. We have to be open in our thinking to say, ‘that’s a good pathway that that young person has gone on’, rather than saying, ‘they’ve not got five Highers, so they are not on a good pathway’. And I am totally adamant that we can change that narrative.”
So what about attainment? The report by his advisers published last month said that “candidates who are lower attaining are not improving at the same rate as higher attaining young people”. That sounds like a widening attainment gap, so what’s going on?
“We consulted about a framework to judge on how we are progressing on closing the attainment gap and across those indicators, two-thirds show the attainment gap closing, so I would take from that encouragement that we are moving in the right direction.
“Not for a moment am I going to say that that’s job done because this is a big intractable problem in Scottish society but I think we have the necessary focus within our education system on doing something about that now.”
He notes that the International Council of Education Advisers has commented that Scotland is taking all necessary interventions and needs to stay the course.
So regardless of what this review says, are you actually averse to making any big changes, are you on the right track?
“I do feel we are on the right track,” he confirms. “I do think CfE is the right reform for Scotland to have undertaken – that’s my view. Yes, let’s have a review about the articulation between the BGE and the senior phase, let’s have a look at some of the issues in the senior phase, I’m perfectly happy to do that, but I think there’s a good body of evidence and data, and in the assessment by a range of commentators, that we are progressing on the right track.”
It is this unwavering commitment to the path CfE is on that seems to infuriate his opponents. He has nailed his reputation to a strong belief that CfE just needs time and stability.
But while this year, he is presenting the drop in Higher passes as a blip in a longer-term picture of improvement, a further fall in that figure might prove more difficult to explain.
Alongside education, Swinney is also responsible for skills. Modern Apprenticeships have been a success, and the Scottish Government is on track to meet its target of 30,000 apprenticeship starts in the last year of the parliament.
He hails the increasing efforts to get schools actively engaged in the world of work, but does not believe there is an easy solution to worker shortages caused by loss of free movement resulting from Brexit.
He claims to be hopeful that Boris Johnson will relent on a Scottish visa. “I have to be optimistic about it because I think the evidence is so overwhelming from a Scottish perspective.”
He believes the UK Government’s refusal to countenance any further devolution will be a “disaster” for them. “When their immigration proposals came out, I don’t think I remember ever seeing a UK Government policy proposition so comprehensively rebutted by such a wide cross-section of opinion in Scottish society.
“I think they’re just walking into an argument where people will say, the only answer to this is independence.”
Swinney, who led the SNP between 2000 and 2004, has always been a gradualist on independence, so when will it happen – five years, or perhaps 10?
“There will be independence within the next five years.”
He is buoyed by signs of pro-Remain No voters switching sides in the independence debate, with a few recent polls showing a wafer-thin majority for Yes, but won’t be drawn on how much higher Yes support needs to go before a Yes result can be both assured and accepted as decisive.
Rather, he sounds as if he is prepared to accept a very thin majority as a decisive mandate for wholesale constitutional change, citing Brexit as a precedent: “A referendum is a binary choice; one side is successful and one side is not,” he says. “We have just seen in the EU referendum what 52:48 looks like in terms of an outcome being enforced.
“Obviously, our outlook is about building and maximising support for independence.”
With the polls now so close, how he does his job could prove critical. •