Russell vows to act on schools ‘slow progress’

Statistics released by the Scottish Government, looking at the picture in state education, provided a mixed report card for schools and teachers
Statistics released by the Scottish Government, looking at the picture in state education, provided a mixed report card for schools and teachers
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CONCERN is growing that attempts to improve Scotland’s education system have stalled, as a raft of reports revealed rising class sizes, falling teacher numbers and increasing truancy rates, in what critics have called a “quiet crisis” in the country’s classrooms.

Statistics released by the Scottish Government, looking at the picture in state education, provided a mixed report card for schools and teachers.

While 99 per cent of P1 pupils are in classes of 25 of fewer, the proportion of P1-3 classes of 18 or fewer has slipped from 21.6 per cent last year, to 20.1 per cent.

Average class sizes across all Scotland’s schools rose marginally, and there were 13.4 pupils per teacher in 2011, compared with 13.3 last year.

While the number of Scottish school buildings in a “poor” or “bad” condition has fallen from 546 in 2010 to 510 in 2011, there are still more than 100,000 pupils attending such schools.

And while the number of children being excluded has fallen, the level of unexplained absence, including truancy, has grown from 0.8 per cent to 1.3 per cent in the past five years.

Education secretary Michael Russell admitted progress had been “slow” and that cutting class sizes had been “incredibly difficult”. He said: “The information shows that attainment has improved, more children are leaving school for positive destinations and that exclusions are down.

“In addition, key investments in school buildings have resulted in more children attending better quality schools.

“From [this] information, the outlook for Scotland’s schools is good. But I must stress that we are not complacent. In the face of Westminster cuts, we will continue to work hard to deliver further improvement.”

He went on: “We are making slow but steady progress. You have to look at class sizes in the round. It’s been incredibly difficult to achieve. We’re still making progress in difficult circumstances and we will continue to make progress.”

But Labour’s shadow education secretary, Ken Macintosh, said there was a “quiet crisis brewing”.

He said: “Despite their promises, the SNP has allowed teacher numbers to fall every year since they took office. Even on pupil-teacher ratios, as opposed to class sizes, the SNP government is doing exactly the opposite of what they said they would do.

“I worry not just for our teachers, but for our children who are the real losers here. We must aspire to have a world-leading education system again, because the tragedy is that behind each of these statistics is a pupil not getting the time, attention and quality of education they deserve.”

Lib Dem education spokesman Liam McArthur said: “The education secretary is fond of bold promises and categorical assurances, yet these figures reveal a mixed picture in terms of the SNP’s performance on education.

“With pledges broken on class sizes, teacher numbers plummeting and pupil-teacher ratios going in the wrong direction, Mr Russell has much to do to reassure Scotland’s pupils, parents and staff that he is able to match assertion with action.”

Last month, Scottish teachers took part in their first national strike for 25 years in protest at changes being made to their pensions. There may yet be further industrial action to come in response to the controversial McCormac report, which called for teachers to be more “flexible” in their working arrangements.

But the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest teaching union, welcomed the Scottish Government figures, after they showed minimum teacher numbers had been maintained, despite an overall fall.

Ronnie Smith, its general secretary, said: “While this news is welcome, the guarantee on teacher numbers is for this year alone, so we must work hard in the years ahead to ensure that teacher numbers are maintained.”