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Will the SNP ever address the Scottish schools crisis?

Failing to educate children effectively is about as grievous a state deficiency as can be imagined.

By Chris Deerin

There comes a point with governments at which you just have to give up the ghost. Whatever it is you think they should be doing, and however passionately you believe they should do it, you have to accept that they never will – the administration is too long in the tooth, or too diminished, or too frightened, or too locked into wrong-think. The repeated application of one’s head to a brick wall with no obvious impact beyond a constant headache begins to lose its charm.

Such is the case with the SNP and education. As we approach the 15th anniversary of the party first taking power at Holyrood, its position on schools has long since calcified into one of placatory accommodation with the teaching unions, of allergy to the suggestion of courageous reform, of recasting statistics to throw positive light on what is at best mediocrity and at worst shameful failure, and of a desperate desire to keep trouble out of the headlines rather than to improve things. 

You might wonder how this came to be. You might consider that a parliament such as Holyrood, which necessarily has limited powers, might have made the most of the tools it does have. You might think that after more than 20 years of devolution there would have been an intense focus on ensuring Scotland has one of the best school systems in the world – I mean, what else was there to do? You might recall that the current first minister, on taking office, promised that education would be her major priority.

Today, that promise carries little weight. She may have wanted to, but wanting isn’t enough. You have to make it happen.

Nicola Sturgeon has not made it happen. I urge you to read the devastating analysis published this week by Reform Scotland, the think tank I run, by the former head teacher Carole Ford. Ford, who is also chair of the Scottish Secondary Mathematics Group and co-author of a number of maths textbooks, spends a lot of time in high schools, and her clear exposition of the problems within them should set alarm bells ringing throughout government and society.

Though Ford is a Liberal Democrat, her findings are nothing to do with party politics. She is fair-minded, indisputably expert, always ready to give credit where it is due, and focused only on ensuring children receive the best education they can get. Sadly, I have heard her concerns echoed far too widely by others in recent years.

Scotland is struggling with its exam performance. The bizarre consequence of this is a movement by the education establishment towards reducing the importance of exams, rather than towards improving that performance. The government leans on data that shows basic levels of achievement are met, but avoids the stats that show a decline in excellence. Pupils are increasingly likely to be pushed towards easier subjects rather than tackle the harder ones, such as Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). There is too little emphasis on the retention of knowledge, which is the basis of learning, and consequently there are dangerously large gaps in pupil understanding.

Ford criticises a “persistent belittling of the importance of knowledge and conceptual understanding, and a dismissive attitude to the notions of mastery of skills or academic excellence, which have combined to undermine the performance of Scottish pupils”.

“Make no mistake,” she adds, “this educational ethos is the antithesis of that which contributed to Scotland’s previous world-class reputation for education.”

The negative consequences of lockdown and enforced home-learning are filtering through the system like poison. Good habits have been broken. Since returning to school, children are more disruptive, pay less attention in class, do less homework, and many are struggling with mental health issues. Teachers are battling valiantly to cope and to provide a quality daily education, but none of those I’ve spoken to believe they are succeeding. Morale is low and there are tensions between school leaderships and staff.

One head teacher told me recently that “I have had a number [of teachers] come to me in floods of tears, feeling they are drowning and not coping, not managing to get it right for the children or their families.” They feel they are “failing” their pupils, and increasing numbers seem to be looking to leave the profession. “We just put our heads down and plough on through,” the head teacher said. “I, along with my staff, are literally just going from day to day, making it to the end of the week, in the hope that we are making a positive difference.”

Amid all this stress, there has been little sense that the necessary support has been forthcoming from the centre. Children need to catch up on months of missed education, yet as Ford writes, there is no national strategy to retrieve this situation. “Where are the extra classes, the changes in the curriculum, the tutor programmes? Why is there no outcry for something to be done? Individual teachers and individual schools are implementing catch-up strategies if they can, but the collective response, particularly from the educational establishment, appears to be that it doesn’t really matter. Contrast this approach with what has been happening in England since June 2020: a school-led, locally sourced but nationally funded tutor programme.” She poses an important question: “exactly what has Education Scotland been doing for the last two years?”

The government seems at least to agree with aspects of this. It is moving to replace Education Scotland, the school standards body, as well as the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and to create a fully independent schools inspectorate. But it is unclear whether this is simply a rearranging of the deckchairs – “something must be done; this is something” – or whether the measures will ultimately have a positive impact. It sometimes seems a mystery as to what the SNP actually wants from Scotland’s education system, other than it not getting in the way of winning a second independence referendum. PR, not performance, seems to be the driving factor.

This is an old and tired government, and it is probably too much to expect, at this late stage of its life, that it has the intellectual energy or even the institutional capacity to get to grips with the crisis in our schools. But failing to educate our children effectively is about as grievous a state deficiency as can be imagined. If you can’t sort the schools then what, in the end, is the point of you?

[See also: How will Nicola Sturgeon use her final years in office?]

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