For Nicola Sturgeon, education is the crisis that is not going to go away. In part this is because she pledged that improving the performance of Scotland’s schools would be her top priority as First Minister. But it’s also because each new piece of data seems to present a fresh challenge to her pledge, because educational experts are starting to rebel, and because political opponents scent blood. Sturgeon is caught in something of a python squeeze.
She and her education secretary John Swinney are not helping themselves — they refuse to accept there is a problem and insist they will carry on with their plans, despite the warning lights flashing all around them.
Few neutrals doubt the First Minister’s good intentions. She is fond of saying that as a former state school pupil she is determined to give comprehensive kids the best possible chance in life. “If anybody decides to be a block to making sure we’ve got the best education system then they should be moved out of the way,” she has said. “I’ll be confrontational with anybody if it’s about improving the educational experience of kids that come from the kinds of communities that I grew up in. I don’t want it to be a lottery in life as to whether you get the chances to do what I did or not.”
Unfortunately, the facts are stubbornly refusing to conform to the rhetoric. The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which underpins the SNP’s approach to education, is plainly failing to have the positive impact that was intended. The latest blow came this week when Professor Jim Scott of Dundee University issued a report claiming that attainment among fourth-year pupils has dropped by at least a third in key attainment areas since the CfE was introduced in 2013. He also found the number of Higher (equivalent to A-Level) passes in the fifth year of secondary had fallen by 10 per cent in the past four years. Adding insult to injury, Professor Scott said that if the consequences of the CfE had been known when it first originated in 2006, the project would have been delayed or even cancelled.
Again, the intention was good – and largely backed across the political spectrum at the time. The CfE’s overarching goals are to provide young Scots with “the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st century”. But in the delivery and the detail, the government has betrayed the concept.
Professor Scott is not the only educationalist to voice concern about the direction of travel. There has been an unexpected reduction in the number of Nat 5s — the equivalent of GCSEs — being sat by state school pupils. The majority of schools now allow them to sit five or six, when it was previously eight. This is because pupils are expected to follow a broad general curriculum until the end of the third year of secondary school, selecting exam subjects only in the fourth year. Previously, specialisation would begin in year three. Less class and study time inevitably means fewer exams. Parents were not made aware of this — and seem unlikely to have approved if they had been.
Things have become so bad that some of the better state schools now ignore the government’s diktat and allow their pupils to specialise from year three. Shortly after taking over as First Minister, Sturgeon insisted she needed better data to track school performance. But the Scottish government has withdrawn from two of the three international comparator studies, and its common choice of metric — how many pupils are passing one Higher — is ridiculed by educationalists. “One Higher in what? What opportunities do a single Higher actually open up?” one senior figure said to me this week. “It looks like they are scared of the data, and want to control it to the point we learn nothing useful. It’s a gross politicisation of our education system.”
Experts also point to the government closing down the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, and replacing it with what they say is meaningless national testing, and point to a shift away from STEM, languages and social subjects in the fourth and fifth years of secondary school. On 3 December, PISA will publish its three-yearly international comparison of educational performance in reading, maths and science. This is the only international survey that still includes Scotland. The last data, in 2016, showed that Scotland’s scores across all three categories had declined. For the first time since the tests began in 2000, none of the three areas was given an “above average” rating. Swinney said then that his reforms would address this — if the new findings are gloomy, there will be nowhere for the SNP to hide.
Sturgeon is feeling the heat. At First Minister’s Questions this week she was accused of following a “mantra of denial” when it came to her education policies. She insists that a higher percentage of young people are leaving school with qualifications than before. But which qualifications, and what are their value?
Both Brexit and the general election ensure limited coverage of Holyrood policy areas at the moment, and there’s always the indyref card to play when the headlines get too negative. But the SNP’s blinkered position on education is becoming unsustainable. Before too long, there will have to be a serious and honest conversation about the Curriculum for Excellence and its unintended consequences. There will have to be a pause for reflection and recalibration. Better that the First Minister makes that choice for herself than is seen to be forced into it.