JOHN SWINNEY must dread getting up in the morning these days. I have some sympathy him as I do not believe that he is personally responsible for the current mess in Scottish education. That charge can be more easily laid at the door of his predecessors who persistently refused to listen to teachers and parents about what was happening in our schools. He cannot, however, shy away from the fact that he has been part of a government which, for ten years, has been pretending that all is well with the delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence. Neither did the warning signs only appear in the spring of 2015.
This week’s PISA results laid bare the extent of Scotland's problem. Having been well above the OECD averages in maths, science and reading in the year 2000, we are now below the average in all three and, worse still, we are actually moving backwards in two of these measurements. Not surprisingly, we have been overtaken by lots of other competing nations.
At least John Swinney was honest in his assessment and even the First Minister, who has staked her entire reputation on improving our schools, did not seek to make any excuses at First Minister’s Questions when Ruth Davidson challenged her about what had gone wrong.
That, at least, is welcome acknowledgement after ten years of the SNP being in complete denial. But it will only mean something if the SNP top brass match their rhetoric with a commitment to radical reform.
To be fair, there were some encouraging signs a few months back. John Swinney recognised that much of the paperwork and guidance related to the Curriculum for Excellence has been found seriously wanting. There is far too much of it, it is lacking coherence, it is confused and, sometimes, even unintelligible. The irony must surely be that as we strive to improve basic literacy, our education agencies are guilty of gobbledygook.
The responsibility for this surely lies with the agencies themselves and with the Scottish Government. The buck passing needs to stop and those in high places need to properly respond to teachers' concerns.
As well as this, the inspection process should not be part of the same body that undertakes the development of the curriculum. Apart from that being a very odd structure (which, by the way, is not replicated in other countries) it allows Education Scotland to be judge and jury at the same time. It also makes it very hard for Education Scotland to spread its thin resources across two distinct roles and ensure there is correct focus in both. We all know that the number of inspections and the number of inspectors have been falling of late – despite Scottish Government promises to the opposite – and that is partly because HMIe are having to be drawn away to do some firefighting with the Curriculum for Excellence.
The other related issue is to do with data. John Swinney was, rightly, quite clear when he attended a recent Education and Skills Committee meeting, that we do not have all the relevant data we need to discover which schools are needing assistance when it comes to raising attainment. The OECD made the point that we need better research – so too did some of our education experts who believe that it will be very hard to measure the progress of Curriculum for Excellence because the relevant baseline statistics were not collected at the right time. That, surely, is also a failure of Education Scotland.
Just as important however, is listening to experienced teachers who have been so appalled by the lack of progress in reading, writing and arithmetic that they have, in some cases, ditched the guidance and gone back to what are traditional methods of teaching – ones that work and which are proven to deliver better results. And good for them, but what is so sad is the fact that they have felt the need to keep quiet for fear of upsetting their masters in local authorities or in Education Scotland. I am confident that all parents and all teachers simply want the best for our youngsters and therefore they want something that works. One teacher whose school I visited recently told me that she had gone back to using 1970s style spelling tests and, guess what, she saw a marked improvement in the basic skill levels amongst her 10-year-olds.
Helping schools to focus on what works and on testing our youngsters is why John Swinney must not be deflected by anyone in his desire to publish the relevant data. Curriculum for Excellence has run for a whole decade but without being able to establish where things are going wrong.
It goes without saying, that if pupils do not have basic literacy and numeracy they will struggle with other aspects of learning. It means they will have greater difficulty with the core subjects, the grasp of which is so essential when it comes to getting a good college or university place or a really decent job. And on that point, something needs to happen quickly about subject choice in our schools. It might be an unintended consequence, but the structure of the Curriculum for Excellence has narrowed subject choice and therefore had a detrimental effect on the ability of youngsters to get a strong group of core subjects under their belt before they apply to university. I was pleased to hear both SQA and Education Scotland at recent Holyrood committees admit that this was a growing problem.
If the OECD's PISA results prove anything, it is that there is a need for radical reform, not just tinkering around the edges. John Swinney's governance review is critical and whilst the Scottish Conservatives will make a detailed submission to this, the one thing we are looking for is genuine reform of how our school system works. That includes allowing head teachers to have the final say over how they run their school (including how they will spend the attainment fund money) and, if parents want different types of schools to operate within the state system, then so be it. The key test again is what works, not slavish adherence to ideology.
When Curriculum for Excellence was being developed there was almost unanimous acceptance that its central principle – namely that pupils should understand why they are learning something just as much as what they are learning – was a good thing. That principle holds true today and it was something remarked upon by the recent OECD report. However, that will mean nothing if the Curriculum for Excellence cannot be delivered properly.
It's all very well having responsible citizens, confident individuals, effective contributors and successful learners but if they can't read, write and count properly then Scotland won't be going anywhere fast.
Last week's PISA results were a real worry. John Swinney has surely got his work cut out.