Leader comment: No margin for error over reforms in education

Scottish education's long-standing reputation as one of the best available in the world no longer holds true.
Scottish education's long-standing reputation as one of the best available in the world no longer holds true.
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We should be disappointed but not hugely surprised by the publication of figures which show that the performance of Scotland’s education system has deteriorated when measured against other countries in recent years, and is now rated no better than “average” for maths, reading and science.

It has been described as Scotland’s worst-ever performance under the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) grading, although those tests only started in 2000. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the situation is clear when Deputy First Minister John Swinney says the results make “uncomfortable reading”. Mr Swinney did not try to hide from the difficult truth when making a statement yesterday in Holyrood, highlighting some of the more damning statistics at the start of his statement.

The Pisa figures do not tell us much we did not know already. The findings date from tests which took place in March 2015, and the decline in standard of Scottish education has been well documented since then. This is why Mr Swinney was addressing the matter in parliament yesterday, having been moved from his finance brief to sort out a sector which the First Minister has staked her reputation on.

It is clear that radical reform is required to get education back on track, and Mr Swinney does not dispute this, although some also argue that further investment is the key.

However, the word “reform” alone will strike fear into the hearts of teachers, never mind the prospect of radical reform. The profession has gone through serious upheaval in the name of reform in recent years, and there will be little enthusiasm for further restructuring. As Mr Swinney admitted in the chamber yesterday when questioned about Curriculum for Excellence, “the cumulative burden of guidance has become un-navigable for the teaching profession”.

In addition to CfE, the Deputy First Minister has put in place, and continues to roll out, a reform programme based on the failings underlined yesterday. These have to be allowed time to take effect, rather than embark on a reworking of the entire plan, and we await details of the National Improvement Plan for Education next week.

If we give Mr Swinney the benefit of the doubt here, it is because the Pisa figures pre-date his appointment as education secretary by 14 months, and in any case, reforms in education do not produce immediate results. But we cannot excuse the SNP, who must take responsibility for the decline of Scottish education while in power.

It is difficult to measure improvement in education without resort to statistical evidence, and the next Pisa tests are set for 2018, with findings presumably released in 2019. If there is no evidence of improvement by that stage, any plea for mitigation from the Scottish Government will fall on deaf ears. Mr Swinney has no margin for error with his current reform programme, for the sake of his party – but more importantly, for the sake of our children.