The SNP has failed Scotland’s Children

The SNP has failed Scotland’s Children

by Max Young
article from Monday 11, January, 2021

“Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to? It really matters.” 

THESE ARE the now-infamous words of Nicola Sturgeon in August 2015, still riding high on the SNP’s landslide in the General Election three months prior in which it had won all but three seats in Scotland. 

The Curriculum for Excellence, or CfE, was designed to be the saviour of Scottish education. Famed in the 20th century for its ability to offer great success to the “Lad O’ Pairts”–  the young Scot from a humble background– Scottish education was suffering by the time of a 2002 Scottish Executive consultation, at the end of which the idea of the CfE was born. 

The new curriculum eventually shaped up to offer a “joined up”, “holistic” approach to the education of Scotland’s children, with implementation starting in 2010. At the time, 46 per cent of teachers were “barely confident” or “not confident at all” in its guidance, which they perceived as vague. This was a barely heard warning of the problems to come.  

Fast-forward to December 2015, when an OECD review of the refreshed system was released. International experts decided that the reforms could provide a “watershed moment” – the curriculum could potentially restore Scotland to its former educational greatness with encouraging elements such as positive relationships between students and teachers and high levels of social inclusion. The OECD nevertheless warned of declining scores in maths, many pupils with poor reading comprehension and a sharp drop-off in positive attitudes at secondary schools. 

The ball was in the SNP’s court – it was up to Sturgeon and Swinney to deliver their promises. When annual surveys of numeracy and literacy continued to show declining levels of performance, the SNP scrapped them. The surveys were replaced by standardised tests that were then watered-down by the unions such that they were no longer standardised and their results, helpfully, could not be compared with those of the years prior. 

Sturgeon also withdrew Scotland from two of the three international comparative reviews in which it participated. Only PISA remained, and there was little to celebrate in its 2018 report, which showed near-constant decline and a fall in science rankings from 10th to 19th, reading from 11th to 23rd, and maths from 11th to 24th since 2006. By 2019, Scottish pupils now only performed at the OECD average in maths and reading, and below it in science. Scotland was achieving the lowest scoresin maths and science since it started participating in the survey 20 years before. The SNP had passed the watershed moment, and it failed.  

Much attention has been given to Scottish education’s woeful attainment gap, which sees 60 per cent  of pupils from the most affluent areas heading to university – while the comparative figure for deprived areas is only 26 per cent . This gap narrowed slightly between 2018 and April 2020, though that was due to the fact that fewer pupils from affluent areas reached a “positive follow-up destination” than their peers in poorer areas. The outcomes were levelling down, not up. Hardly a cause for celebration. 

“Multi-level teaching” goes some way to explaining these saddening results. This is a component of the CfE which expects teachers to instruct pupils from different levels in the same class. It is not practised in affluent, high-attainment areas such as East Renfrewshire. All schools in North Lanarkshire, meanwhile, use multi-level teaching and see their attainment suffer. 

To solve this, the SNP employs a strategy known as “Throw Money At The Problem Until It Hopefully Goes Away.” Designated “Challenge Authorities” receive so much extra funding that there is, along with no resulting improvement in attainment, a concern that a two-tier funding system is emerging that will threaten the constitution of Scottish education. 

Declining results across the board offer no respite. A report on Scottish Highers results had to be dragged out via a Freedom of Information request, was delayed for six months and published late in the evening one Thursday in February 2020. Significant attainment drops in key subjects provided shocking reading. 1,515 fewer pupils passed Higher English, 5.5 per cent  fewer than the previous year and the lowest result since 2014. Advanced Higher English saw its pass rate drop by 8.8 per cent. The drop for mathematics was 2.1 per cent, and Higher history pass rates dropped by an overall 14.6 per cent . The number of school leavers who had at least one pass at the Higher level fell from 62 per cent  to 60 per cent  from 2017-2019.  

The SNP clings onto a handful of successful statistics in education. They celebrate that the percentage of school leavers achieving one level 5 qualification rose from 71 per cent  to 85 per cent  since the SNP took office – these are the lowest of bars and ones which a “world-class” education system should barely notice leaping over. 

The final nail in the coffin of the SNP’s record in education is seen in literacy and reading comprehension, areas in which Scottish children used to excel. While Scottish pupils once had the highest level of reading comprehension in the UK and Ireland, they have now slipped below Northern Ireland and fallen roughly in line with England. 

The responsibility for this sad demise of a once famed system of schooling lies solely with the Scottish National Party. Nicola Sturgeon should indeed by judged by her track record on educating Scotland’s young. Her behaviour towards it is no different from her behaviour towards everything else – to deny, deflect from and ignore consistent failures – or simply accuse any critics of talking Scotland down.  

This time there is no deflection for a failure of this magnitude – the SNP has failed Scotland’s children. 

Max Young is a student at Edinburgh University 

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