General election campaigns in Scotland in the devolution era have a touch of strange unreality about them. While the rest of the United Kingdom is taking about bread-and-butter issues such as the NHS, schools, and policing, in Scotland these are matters which will not be directly affected by the outcome of the upcoming vote on December 12: they are all policy areas where the key decisions are taken at Holyrood, and that will continue to be the case regardless of who is Prime Minister at the end of next month.
It is unfortunate that this means that scrutiny of subjects such as Scottish education are crowded out by the election debates, particularly with the concentration we are currently seeing on constitutional issues such as Brexit and indyref2. It is all the more unfortunate when there are such serious issues in Scottish education that we should be discussing.
Last week, Dundee University’s Professor Jim Scott published shocking new data highlighting some of the consequences of the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence.
Professor Scott found that the number of Higher passes in S5 had gone down ten per cent over the past four years, a reduction, in his words, that “Scotland cannot afford”. He also found that attainment in National Qualification Levels 3 to 5 by S4 pupils had dropped by 32.9 per cent – one third – since 2013.
‘A matter of national concern’
Perhaps most worrying of all, Professor Scott revealed that the least-able and lower-than-average learners had suffered to a significantly greater degree than the able learners and, in particular, the most able in S4.
And it was, in his words, “a matter of national concern that levels of ‘zero attainment’ have risen and this has reached over three per cent which is, in effect, one child in every S1 comprehensive class”.
On any assessment, this is a damning analysis of the SNP’s record in education. And yet it is education which the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claims is her main priority in government, with a clear ambition to close the attainment gap.
It is not just in relation to attainment levels that there are concerns about what is happening in Scottish schools. There are serious worries about aspects of literacy and numeracy, which have been the focus of the work of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee in recent months.
We also know there are serious concerns about subject choice, especially the marked movement away from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), languages, and social subjects – the very subjects that are crucial not only for a rounded education, but for the future success of the Scottish economy.
Perhaps worst of all is the evidence which shows the least-able pupils are losing out the most. This is exactly the opposite of what was intended when Curriculum for Excellence was introduced.
Scotland removed from international comparison
And yet, in response to all this evidence, the SNP’s Education Secretary John Swinney is in denial as to the scale of the problem. He accuses critics of cherry-picking evidence to make their case, but the fact is that there is a growing body of data pointing to failures in the system, a fact which has been accepted by the Education and Skills Committee on a cross-party basis.
It was John Swinney who removed Scotland from some key international comparison tables. It was he who decided not to carry out the mid-term review of Curriculum for Excellence, as the OECD requested. And he cancelled his proposed flagship Education Bill, despite it being the primary focus of the SNP’s Programmes for Government of 2016 and 2017.
When the SQA results were announced this summer, Swinney told us that the four-year decline in attainment levels in Highers was down to “annual variation”. He asserted that, overall, the SQA data represented a “strong set of results”. With the exception of National 5s, which showed some improvement, this was a conclusion which hardly reflected the evidence.
Our principal concern must surely be for the outcomes for pupils who already face barriers. Professor Scott’s evidence shows that, since the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, the overall number of pupils leaving schools with no qualifications is rising, and that there has been at least a doubling of that rate in 14 out of 32 local authorities.
That is, simply, a national scandal. But rather than face up to the challenges, both the Education Secretary and the First Minister would rather mislead Parliament about the facts.
A Freedom of Information request obtained by the Scottish Conservatives last week disclosed that education officials told Mr Swinney seven months ago that subject choice had been reduced in schools across the entire senior phase. Subsequent to that, both he and Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament that there had been no reduction.
This claim was repeated by Nicola Sturgeon in answer to a question from Jackson Carlaw last Thursday. And yet the facts, and the information from Scottish Government officials, simply do not support this contention.
Last week the entire Scottish Parliament, SNP ministers included, united to agree on the wording of a motion noting the data produced by Professor Scott, drawing the conclusion that the attainment gap was widening, and highlighting that there were failures in the delivery of Curriculum for Excellence, and that these failures were imposing proportionately greater barriers to success among the pupil cohort who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The motion went on to call for urgent action by the Scottish Government to address these concerns.
I hope the fact that SNP ministers were prepared to support these conclusions will mark a turning point in their approach to Scottish education. It is no longer enough for them to put their hands over their ears and pretend that all is well – rather, there is need for a fundamental rethink of the way in which Curriculum for Excellence is being delivered, otherwise we will be failing a whole generation of young Scots whose life chances will be restricted as a consequence.
Murdo Fraser is the Scottish Conversative MSP for Mid-Scotland & Fife