Expert hits out at John Swinney over school standards

Reading and writing standards in Scottish classrooms have plummeted over the past five years, particularly among children in deprived areas.
Reading and writing standards in Scottish classrooms have plummeted over the past five years, particularly among children in deprived areas.
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A former Scottish Government literacy adviser has accused ministers of not caring about tackling poor levels of reading and writing amongst deprived children and ignoring expert advice.

Judith Gillespie, who led the government’s Literacy Commission and sat on its successor Standing Literacy Commission, has claimed the government’s education policy is not targeting the most needy children.

In an outspoken attack, she also described Education Secretary John Swinney as “useless” and said his reforms to give power to head-teachers and introduce testing were initiatives designed to grab headlines rather than solve Scotland’s literacy problems.

Gillespie expressed frustration with the Scottish Government’s approach at the end of a week which saw another set of statistics showing declining reading and writing standards.

Data produced by the Scottish Survey for Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) showed fewer than half (49 per cent) of 13- and 14-year-olds were able to write well – a fall from the 64 per cent recorded in 2012.

The SSLN also showed that no progress has been made when it comes to closing the attainment gap, which sees children from richer backgrounds outperform those from poorer areas.

Two years ago the Standing Literacy Commission produced a report recommending that children experiencing communication difficulties should be targeted for help at pre-school age and for agencies to work together to improve reading and writing skills.

“Ever since anyone has looked at this, they have found the problem is to do with the children’s starting points, which is to do with their home backgrounds,” Gillespie said.

“The government knows that. Everybody knows that, but they do nothing about that. All politicians want to do is to get high-profile headlines. They don’t actually ever care about solving the problem. The way the government deals with the problem is that it sets up a commission, waits for a report. Then does nothing.”

Gillespie criticised Swinney saying he was “useless”.

She said: “His only purpose is to do something political. He’s faffing around trying to do the really high-profile things like taking schools out of local authorities and introducing national testing. They are Tory policies. There are huge problems with deprivation. It requires a long-term view and spending money.”

Yesterday a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “These claims are not correct. As the Deputy First Minister has outlined, we want to see standards and attainment improving in Scottish education and this government is already taking action to provide teachers and schools with the tools and resources they need to improve literacy.

“As well as clarity about the standards expected in our classrooms and fully embedding literacy skills across the curriculum, we are providing £750 million over the lifetime of this parliament, through the Scottish Attainment Challenge, targeted at those children and young people most in need, to close the poverty-related attainment gap. This includes £120m going directly to head teachers this year alone.”

Euan McColm: Page 27