Scottish education must not be a political football – leader comment

Annual debates over dumbing down or falling standards are not helping the standards of education in Scottish schools.

Barrhead High School pupils jump for joy at their exam results (Picture: Mark F Gibson)

It has become an annual event. School exam results are announced and then, depending on the results, they are either seen as another shocking example of the ‘dumbing down’ of education with seemingly everyone getting an A in something or a damning indictment of the quality of Scotland’s education system if pass rates fall.

Either way, it seems that teachers simply cannot win and the conversation is almost relentlessly negative, despite the almost obligatory photographs of small groups of pupils jumping in the air to celebrate their own particular results.

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There is always likely to be a degree of variability in the average intelligence of any year group of pupils. It is also a difficult and subjective task to make sure that exams remain at a similar level of difficulty.

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The danger is that political rows spill over into what should be a matter for experts in education.

For example, if a particularly bright year of pupils, the stand-out year of the century, got a record number of As at Higher, might the resulting furore over what was mistaken for ‘dumbing down’ persuade those setting the exams to toughen the questions – whether subconsciously or because of table-banging politicians – thereby putting the following year at an unfair disadvantage? The true state of Scottish education is more likely to be revealed by comparing its performance against other countries over a longer period of time than just one year to the next, but such exercises also have their critics.

It is important to ensure the highest of standards of education, but achieving this goal will not be helped by overly simplistic and politically driven reactions to the latest results, whether from the Government or opposition parties. One can only hope our politicians are wiser behind the scenes.

There are different expert opinions on how to best educate our children. Finland appears to have achieved remarkable results with a relaxed attitude to schoolwork; many in Scotland would sing the praises of hard work and discipline. However, it seems likely some children will respond well to one approach, but not the other.

Amidst the sound and fury of the debate, we should remember that teachers are the ones charged with educating each individual, unique child – within an overall system – and they are unlikely to be helped by being pilloried, one way or the other, on an annual basis.