Jenny Gilruth's report card for first year as Scottish education secretary - is it a pass or fail?

Former teacher Jenny Gilruth has had a busy 12 months since her appointment

Education has rarely been out of the headlines since Jenny Gilruth took charge of the brief almost a year ago.

The SNP minister was handed responsibility for delivering hugely complex projects promised by her predecessors – such as replacing Scotland’s education institutions and closing the poverty-related attainment gap – at a time when budgets have never been tighter.

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And she has had to respond to new crises, including a shocking rise in violence in the nation’s schools, as well as falling attendances, and Scotland’s worst ever performance in influential Pisa tests, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Education and skills secretary Jenny Gilruth. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA WireEducation and skills secretary Jenny Gilruth. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Education and skills secretary Jenny Gilruth. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

As it approaches the end of her first 12 months in post, The Scotsman has put together a report card for the former teacher.


For many parents and school staff, the alarming rise in aggressive behaviour and violence in schools is the biggest issue in Scottish education. Ms Gilruth started reasonably strongly, quickly ordering a summit to consider the issue, which later turned into several meetings.

However, despite a clear picture emerging throughout last year from local authorities and trade unions, she repeatedly said the Government would need to wait until official research clarified the situation, which was not ready until the end of November.

When that report was finally published, Ms Gilruth’s response appeared to misjudge the sense of urgency felt by many, promising only a future action plan and some additional money to train teachers, who were furious at the suggestion they were at fault in some way.

The education secretary has also often been at pains to highlight the role of councils in responding to the crisis, when parents and staff want strong leadership from their Government.



Criticism of the education secretary’s handling of school violence came to a head following an interview with the BBC last month, in which she admitted she had failed to read a trade union report on violence in Aberdeen schools.

The Scotsman subsequently reported how she had also not read the recommendations of a teacher workload reduction taskforce for England, despite a Scottish teaching leader writing to Ms Gilruth to highlight them.

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Whether or not it was essential for her to have read either report is up for debate, but the public admission, and resulting fall-out, left the impression she had not done her homework. Such a perception can stick.



A hallmark of Ms Gilruth’s first year has been her insistence that teachers be at the heart of the decision-making process. Indeed the former teacher described engagement with them as a “guiding principle”.

First, she took the bold step of delaying legislation to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland (ES), as well as the Government’s response to the Hayward review on the future of assessments, to further consult the profession and ensure the reforms were on the right track.

Then, after her surprise announcement the Government intends to create a Centre of Teaching Excellence, Ms Gilruth said it would be teachers who would “co-design” the initiative, including “how it will operate, when it will be operational, what its scope will be and ultimately how much it will cost”.

She is clearly aware these kind of changes will have little chance of succeeding without the support of those at the chalkface. Whether she ultimately pays attention to what they say remains to be seen, and as ever there is little chance of pleasing everyone, but the emphasis on listening to teachers is to be welcomed.


Handling pressure

The news in December that Scotland had recorded its worst ever scores in maths, science and reading in the Pisa world rankings led to widespread criticism of the SNP’s record on education, and the botched implementation of Curriculum for Excellence.

To be fair to Ms Gilruth, she cannot be blamed for the slide in performance. She was not even in post when the tests were taken, and was a teacher when the curriculum was introduced.

The education secretary did lead the Government’s response to Pisa, however, and was far more assured than she had been in her statement on school violence a few weeks earlier.

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She came armed with concrete measures, announcing a “curriculum improvement cycle” that would 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. Maths was to be the first curricular area to be revised, with the work to be led by a maths specialist.

As a result, she managed to quieten the curriculum critics, for now anyway.



Ms Gilruth again started strongly on education reform. It would have been easier to stick with timetables set by her predecessors, press ahead with the scrapping and replacing the SQA and ES, and agreeing to the recommendations of the Hayward review on the future of exams and assessments, which appeared to have widespread support from the biggest teaching union, school head teachers and education directors.

However, she opted to put the brakes on the process, to consult teachers properly and ensure the overhaul was going to improve Scottish education.

A cynic might say these delays were more influenced by financial considerations than anything else, but botching these reforms would be a disaster, not only for Ms Gilruth and the Government, but for the staff involved and Scotland’s school pupils.

Her additional consultation also revealed that a majority of teachers were not in favour of Prof Hayward’s proposal to axe exams for S4 pupils.

However, the delays have also prolonged the uncertainty for employees in these organisations, and led to claims Scottish education is effectively “paralysed” while the Government decides its next steps.

Ms Gilruth must soon reveal exactly what she plans to do. Only time will tell if the Government’s sums now add up.




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