A moment of clarity was reached last week in the ongoing debate on Curriculum for Excellence. More than a decade in the making, the curriculum has never been far from controversy, most recently over the vexed question of whether it has led to a reduction in attainment.
On the one hand, we have the Conservative Party presenting themselves as dispassionate pursuers of truth. To help their argument, they cite the work of researcher Dr Jim Scott. On the other, we have a team of researchers at Stirling University, led by the professor of education, Mark Priestley.
The Tories claim attainment is falling. Professor Priestley and his team argue it is rising. As Education Secretary, I have to consider where the truth lies.
Do I accept the damnation of our official opposition? Or do I weigh in evidence the detailed research of a team of eminent academics?
When Professor Priestley writes that “we also are cognisant of the dangers of using research to support political agendas, as appears to be the case in the current furore about qualifications”, I am obliged to do my best and put aside any tendency to immediately disbelieve the Conservatives simply for the fact of their use of our children’s education in blatant political electioneering.
Instead, I must do my best to look at the substance of the argument. And here, I find the moment of clarity.
Attainment has risen
First, I must be fair to Dr Scott. He has, in good faith, conducted his research. But I must assess it against the comments of the Stirling researchers that there are “methodological flaws that have led to results and claims that are very misleading”.
And, let’s be quite open about who it is we are talking about here. The team at Stirling have their criticisms of CfE and are never shy about broadcasting them, but on the current controversy, they are crystal clear. They find that attainment at the National 5 and Higher levels has risen.
This is, of course, the exact point that I – and the First Minister – have made on numerous occasions when the question of choice and attainment have been put to us.
And, in order not to fall foul of Professor Priestley’s injunction against misusing his research, we must place it in a wider context.
CfE provides young people with the skills, knowledge and experience to prepare them for all aspects of life beyond school in the 21st century, giving young people the ability and confidence to find and take up the best possible opportunities to fulfil their potential. It is not simply about gaining as many qualifications as quickly as possible.
Up until S3, young people are entitled to study a wide range of subjects across eight curricular areas – the Broad General Education.
In the senior phase – from S4 to S6 – schools then have the freedom to design a curriculum, comprising qualifications, awards and other experiences, tailored to meet young people’s needs. These are the opportunities that are chosen by the individual learner, drawing on the wide choice of qualifications and awards that are now available.
Do findings fit the evidence?
And on the question of choice, it is telling that the education spokespeople of both the Conservative Party – Liz Smith – and of the Labour Party – Iain Gray – told Holyrood’s Education Committee earlier this year that they accepted there was a greater selection of subjects from which pupils can choose.
A further question I must, in fairness, ask myself, is whether the findings from Stirling fit the wider evidence. In 2017/18, a record number of school leavers – 93.2 per cent – were in work, training or study within nine months of leaving school.
The percentage of young people going onto higher education has increased from 34 per cent in 2009/10 to 39 per cent in 2017/18.
And, the gap between those from the most and least deprived communities in work, education or training – a ‘positive destination’ – has reduced to 8.6 percentage points in 2017/18 from 20.2 percentage points in 2009/10.
The simple fact is that the majority of evidence – Dr Scott and the Conservative Party’s claims aside – shows CfE is working. So, in the best traditions of Scottish education, I will follow the evidence and continue to support Scotland’s new curriculum.
The question for others is to explain why they choose to ignore that evidence in pursuit of their political ambitions on the backs of our children’s education.
John Swinney is SNP MSP for Perthshire North, Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary