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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
13 December 2023
Opposition can’t ‘shy away’ from positives in Scottish education, says Jenny Gilruth

Jenny Gilruth speaking during a debate in the Scottish Parliament on improving the performance of the Scottish education system | Alamy

Opposition can’t ‘shy away’ from positives in Scottish education, says Jenny Gilruth

Jenny Gilruth has said that the opposition “cannot shy away from where there are real positives in Scottish education.  

The Cabinet Secretary for Education & Skills was speaking during a Scottish Conservative debate in the Scottish Parliament on improving the performance of the education system.

Gilruth acknowledged the recent Pisa (Programme for International Assessment) report which highlighted an "unprecedented drop" in performance, on average, between its 2018 and 2022 studies in Scotland.  

However, she said that the Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels – better known as the Acel data – shows that literacy and numeracy levels in primary school children achieving CfE levels are at “record highs” for those from both disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds.  

She rejected questioning of the dataset, which is predicated on teacher’s judgement, arguing that would be “an insult to the teaching profession”.  

The Pisa report published last week, which measures performance across around 700,000 15-year-olds in 81 nations, found a decline in all three of the subject areas it examines among Scottish 15-year-olds.

Maths results were down 18 points, with a drop of 11 in reading and seven in science. Declines were larger than those in England, as well as the UK as a whole, and placed Scotland behind the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) averages in maths and science for the first time.

Tory MSP Liam Kerr said in the chamber: “The results held some deeply unsettling truths for Scotland.”

Gilruth argued that maths and science figures are similar to the 2021/22 average and noted literacy was above the average.  

But Kerr told the education minister: "Surely what Pisa is telling us is not that in the last few years, Scotland has somehow flatlined, it is saying over a considerable period there has been a significant decline under this SNP Government.”  

Gilruth reiterated: “Based on the 2022 survey results, similar to the OECD average in maths and science. He seems to believe that Scotland is a unique country in respect of our results; we are not unique by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the OECD call these results the Covid Edition. Covid has impacted on the outcomes for our young people.”

Following the publication of the Acel and Pisa data, Tory MSP Liz Smith asked Gilruth what the reason is for the difference in findings.  

Gilruth said it is “not possible to draw comparisons” as they are two different types of datasets. She said that is why Scotland has agreed to rejoin Timss and Pirls after it pulled out of the major international education survey in 2010.  

But Kerr argued that the data will not be available until 2026 and that the length of time between that data and the last report is too long.

The education minister looked to draw on more positives at the end of her speech, telling the chamber that 75 per cent of pupils with additional support needs belonging to the 2021/22 pupil cohort achieved at least one SCQF level 5, and 93 per cent achieved one or more SCQF level 4.  

She told parliament that primary schools are seeing record attainment levels, while the attainment gap at the primary level is “at a record low”, national exam pass rates are above pre-pandemic levels in 2019, and Scotland sees the highest investment per pupil as well as the lowest pupil-teacher ratio in the UK. 

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