CLAIMS that the basic numeracy skills of Scotland’s school pupils have improved as a result of the country’s controversial new curriculum have been dismissed by teachers’ leaders and educationalists.
Education secretary Michael Russell yesterday said a new report showing apparent improvements among primary school children was a clear indication Curriculum for Excellence is beginning to bear fruit.
But the suggestion was rejected as “not credible” by one teaching union, while a leading educationalist said the argument in favour of the new curriculum, which was introduced in 2010, failed to stack up.
Despite figures showing 76 per cent of P4 pupils and 72 per cent of those in P7 were performing “well” or “very well”, the figure for those in S2 was just 42 per cent.
Mr Russell said the figures reflected the fact that those in primary school had been taught under the new curriculum, with its renewed focus on literacy and numeracy, while those in S2 had not. He said: “Given that we have deliberately raised the bar with Curriculum for Excellence – with high standards expected at each level, the strong performance of primary pupils in maths and numeracy is hugely encouraging.
“It provides a clear picture that, alongside Scotland’s teachers’ unwavering commitment, learning and teaching under Curriculum for Excellence is improving life chances for our children and young people. A common and historic trend is for performance to dip between mid and upper primary and then dip again in early secondary. So it is particularly welcoming to see the high performance in P4 maintained through to P7 under Curriculum for Excellence.
“However, this high performance must also be sustained and improved through to secondary. The performance results taken from S2, who were the last cohort of pupils not to benefit from Curriculum for Excellence, shows that more is needed and the link between deprivation and attainment remains too strong.”
The results of the first-ever Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy were published after tests of 11,000 pupils across P4, P7 and S2 were carried out last year.
Pupils completed two booklets, each lasting about an hour, as well as taking part in an interactive assessment with a teacher covering three tasks involving mental maths, estimation and measurement.
The assessments were constructed to include tasks with different degrees of challenge and across the range of topics within numeracy set out by the curriculum at each level. To be performing “well”, the pupil needed to carry out between 50-75 per cent of the tasks set successfully. “Very well” was defined as anything above 75 per cent.
The numeracy survey showed the percentage of pupils not yet working within their respective levels was less than one per cent in P4, about two per cent in P7, but about 32 per cent in S2.
The Scottish Government said the survey had been designed to take account of the new curriculum, so could not be compared with the results of the Scottish Survey of Achievement (SSA), which was carried out in previous years.
Results of the SSA published in 2009 showed 45 per cent of S2 pupils were rated “well established or better” for numeracy, while the figure for children in P3 was 90 per cent.
Details of the survey were announced at Stenhouse Primary School in Edinburgh.
Head teacher Marlene Galashen said: “As a result of the emphasis which Curriculum for Excellence has placed on numeracy, Stenhouse pupils experience an increased amount of time spent on number and mental maths and more opportunities to talk about their work.”
But despite claims over the new curriculum, Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, said it was too early to draw conclusions. Asked if Curriculum for Excellence was improving numeracy, he said: “No. It has not been in existence for long enough. It’s been in existence for a year and a half and is still in the process of development.
“There’s nothing new in Curriculum for Excellence which could possibly have changed numeracy levels in such a short space of time. Changes in education don’t happen that quickly, I’m afraid. This apparent dip (between primary and secondary school) is ages old – it goes back to the 1980s. A possible explanation is that we set the bar too high for secondary school children or too low for primary.”
Prof Paterson said there was also a debate to be had about the standard of numeracy teaching in primary schools, with many teachers “not competent enough” on the basics.
Ann Ballinger, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), said the argument the new curriculum had already boosted attainment was “not credible”.
She said: “The attainment levels in P7 are poorer than they are in P4. That suggests to me that pupils are becoming more disengaged with the system as they work their way through it. It’s unfortunate we don’t have statistics from previous years because it makes direct comparisons impossible.”
The survey also found that boys tended to outperform girls in numeracy at P4 and P7, while S2 pupils living in areas with lower levels of deprivation were twice as likely to be performing well or very well as pupils living in areas with higher levels of deprivation.
Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry, said failing numeracy skills were a direct result of the SNP’s decision to scrap maximum class sizes for maths and English in S1 and S2.
He said: “Moving between primary and secondary school can be a big jump for pupils. We need to ensure pupils are properly supported during this transition. That is why Labour reduced class sizes in Maths and English in S1 and S2.”
Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith, added: “What I find concerning is the fact that a large number of pupils in secondary school are reporting that their teachers are not always as well focused on this problem as parents have a right to expect.”
The Liberal Democrats’ Liam McArthur MSP said: “Work obviously needs to be done on looking at how pupils can be better supported as they transition from primary into secondary.”
In full: Scottish summary of literacy and numeracy 2011