Leader: B- for Russell, but he must do better in the future

CRISIS, what crisis? Wisely, education secretary Michael Russell did not use this phrase as he unveiled a raft of statistics that give us an insight into the state of state education in Scotland. There is not a crisis in our schools, but the picture presented by the blizzard of numbers is nonetheless a troubling one.

In areas including truancy, primary class sizes, teacher numbers and school refurbishment and rebuilding, the figures show the SNP administration is having difficulty matching its fine rhetoric on education with the harsh reality of having to cope with a constrained budget, something the Nationalists blame on Westminster.

Yet to govern is to choose, and the Nationalist government has chosen to eschew policies that could have liberated funds for education – sticking with universal benefits for the better-off and retaining the council tax freeze are two of many which come to mind – so as the government they must take responsibility for the problems which face education, just as they take the credit for the successes.

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On the downside, therefore, must be the slow progress in reducing class sizes in primary schools. The average class size in primary schools in 2011 was marginally up, ending a five-year run where numbers had either fallen or stayed the same. In primary one the position was better, but not in primaries two and three. Given the emphasis the SNP placed on cutting class sizes, this is disappointing.

More concerning is the fact that nearly 80 per cent of newly qualified teachers are failing to find full-time employment in Scotland’s schools. The government must be given some credit for cutting teacher training to try to stop the oversupply, but it is a waste of financial and human resources to train people who cannot find classroom jobs.

A huge increase in truancy is also worrying, for if pupils are not in school they will not be educated. And though it is the quality of teaching that is paramount, the fact that thousands of pupils are taught in one in five schools which either require substantial repair or rebuilding will worry parents.

On the positive side, there is the fact that teacher numbers, while down from 2007, are relatively stable; there were indications that attainment, insofar as it is properly measured, has improved, with more children now leaving school for what are deemed “positive destinations” and that exclusions from schools were down.

Were Mr Russell being marked by a teacher for his work he might, therefore, be given a B- by a generous pedagogue, though one of the older school might not be so generous. Writing in this newspaper today, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, concludes that the statistics show “moderately encouraging” progress.

Given this judgment, the message for Mr Russell has to be that he must do better.