Education Scotland: SNP vows new focus on 'knowledge' and maths in revamp of under-fire curriculum

Jenny Gilruth pledges action to ‘disrupt’ downward trajectory in international study

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth has unveiled plans to strengthen the place of “knowledge” in Scotland’s under-fire school curriculum after the nation recorded its worst ever results in a key international study.

The SNP minister promised “planned and systematic” improvements to Curriculum for Excellence, with maths earmarked for a “full scale update” from next year.

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She also said she would be holding crunch talks with council chiefs this week after new figures showed a decline in teacher numbers in more than half of local authorities, potentially paving the way for financial penalties.

Education and Skills Secretary Jenny Gilruth. Jane Barlow/PA WireEducation and Skills Secretary Jenny Gilruth. Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Education and Skills Secretary Jenny Gilruth. Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The SNP pledged to recruit 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants in 2021 but the overall numbers have now fallen for two consecutive years.

And Ms Gilruth signalled plans to draw up refreshed guidance to schools on the use of mobile phones, after it was highlighted in recent studies as a cause of declining performance and behaviour, although any ban would be up to head teachers.

On the curriculum, the Scottish Government was under pressure to act after the OECD’s Pisa scores last week confirmed a long term decline in the performance of Scotland’s 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading.

Since the last Pisa assessments in 2018, the nation’s youngsters dropped 18 points in maths, 11 points in reading and seven points in science.

Experts blamed the botched introduction of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence since 2010, including a move away from an emphasis on acquiring knowledge, towards skills and wellbeing.

Ms Gilruth responded to the Pisa results in Holyrood after the publication of a range of new education statistics earlier on Tuesday, including Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels data, based on teacher judgements, which showed rising attainment in literacy and numeracy at P1, P4, P7 and S3.

However, she admitted Scotland needed to “disrupt the Pisa trajectory and drive improvements across school education”.This will include a “curriculum improvement cycle” from next year, which will look at curriculum content, the role of knowledge, the transitions between primary and secondary, and the alignment between the broad general education and the senior phase.

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Ms Gilruth said: "It is not true to say that Curriculum for Excellence ignores knowledge, but we do need to improve the way that knowledge is covered in our curriculum. That is why the place of knowledge is a priority for our systematic improvement cycle.”

Maths will be a "central focus", and the first curricular area to be revised, with the work to be led by a maths specialist.

Figures published on Tuesday confirmed reports of falling attendance in schools, with the rate in 2022/23 dropping to 90.2 per cent, from 92 per cent in 2020/21. It means last year was the lowest rate since comparable figures began in 2003/04.

On teachers, the overall number fell by 122 between 2021 and 2022, and has now dipped by another 160 full-time equivalents (FTE) in the last year.

The number of primary teachers was down by 354, but in secondary the figure was up by 175 from 2022.

There was an overall decrease in 17 local authorities, with the largest proportional falls being 2.7 per cent in East Ayrshire, or 33 FTE teachers, followed by Glasgow City and Moray with reductions of 2 per cent, or 114 and 19 teachers respectively.

Ms Gilruth said: “I will continue to reserve the right to withhold funding allocated to protect teacher numbers where that has not been the case.

"Fundamentally, we cannot hope to improve attendance, behaviour or attainment with fewer teachers in our schools.”

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Andrea Bradley, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said: “This should be a further wake-up call to the Scottish Government and local authority employers that graduates are voting with their feet and choosing other careers where terms and conditions are better - pay is higher, workload is lower and working environments are safer.”

Conservative education spokesman Liam Kerr said: “The SNP Government has left teachers languishing on temporary contracts, forced councils to rely on probationers, yet the minister reiterated her threat to withhold money from councils without increased teacher numbers – at a time when local councils are on their knees begging for funding.”

Amid an ongoing row over last week’s Pisa results, attainment figures for younger pupils appear to show improvement in the Acel data, with “record” levels recorded for primary year groups.

Meanwhile, the 20.5-point gap last year between the proportion of primary pupils from the most and least deprived areas achieving expected levels in literacy was also the lowest on record.

In numeracy, a 17-point poverty-related attainment gap was slightly higher than the 16.8-point difference before the pandemic.

However, Lindsay Paterson, emeritus professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, said: “This annual report is next-to-useless, because the statistics which it contains are based on 'teacher judgement' with no indication of how that relates to any kind of objective measure.

"The results are thus akin to the education system's marking its own homework. This is not to impugn the judgement of teachers in their role of helping pupils to learn. We all, as teachers in whatever sector, have to be optimistic about our students.

"That itself is enough to bring into question any intuitive assessment we make of their achievements.

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"Add to that the inevitable biases that we all, as teachers, harbour, and we ought to be suspicious of any summary of assessment that is not based on the kind of objective evidence that only surveys such as Pisa provide.”

Meanwhile, the number of pupils with additional support needs (ASN), such as autism, dyslexia and mental health problems, reached a record high of 259,036 in 2023, representing 36.7 per cent of pupils.

The Scottish Children's Services Coalition (SCSC) said this was a doubling over the past decade, and called for an increase in resources.



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