Lindsay Paterson: Some good news, some bad, but we are really just scratching the surface

WHERE stands Scottish education? There are two ways of answering. We can compare with other places, and we know the answer is: not too bad, but underperforming.

Or we can compare with ourselves in the past. If we want Scotland to improve, then it would be heartening to know that the country was already heading in the right direction.

So yesterday’s summary statistics on where the publicly funded part of Scottish school education is going are welcome because they do tell as about the path we are on, though it would have been preferable if they had taken the story back further than just five years.

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Having the summaries in one place is useful. It does not – despite some fears in advance – conceal anything, because the fuller details are available elsewhere. And the message is indeed moderately encouraging, but is not the whole story.

Let’s start with some good points. Although the number of teachers remains stagnant, the average size of classes has been dropping because the number of pupils has been falling. Especially in the early years of primary, there has been a noticeable change, and indeed in primary 1 the change is remarkable. The key threshold here is class sizes of 18 or fewer, because that is the point at which, according to the best international research, real benefits start to appear. This year, 29 per cent of primary 1 pupils were in classes of that size, up from just 16 per cent in 2006. We can make the comparison further back if we use the threshold of 20 instead of 18: in 1999, only 15 per cent of primary 1 pupils were in classes of 20 or fewer; this year, it is 44 per cent.

At the other end of schooling, the slow rise in attainment has been equally encouraging. This year, over one-third of pupils had passed three or more Highers by the time they left school. Two decades ago, that was one-quarter; four decades ago, it was about one in eight. Indeed, the proportion gaining at least one Advanced Higher now (15 per cent) is greater than the proportion gaining three or more Highers in 1965 (12 per cent). The consequence in rates of entry to higher education are well-known: 36 per cent of leavers this year, compared with 25 per cent in 1992 and about 12 per cent in 1985.

One last encouraging detail. For the first time, a majority of depute heads in secondary school is female (52 per cent), and 34 per cent of secondary heads are female. Two decades ago, the female proportion was 15 per cent of deputes and a mere 3 per cent of headteachers.

It is important to be repeatedly reminded of the continuing slow improvement of Scottish school education, because much else is awry, only some of it evident in statistics of this sort. There are the one in ten school leavers who are doing nothing worthwhile at all (what the euphemism of policy calls “not in a positive destination”). There are the one in six pupils still being taught in premises judged to be in a “poor” or “bad” condition. There are the five out of six new teachers in 2011 who have not been able to find a full-time, permanent teaching post, up from two-thirds in 2007.

More fundamental is what is not revealed here. There is that intractable issue of social deprivation. Under these headlines lies enormous social variation, which would be even more evident if the statisticians were to return to including independent schools in such publications (an indefensible cost-saving absence of recent years). There is nothing here on whether teachers are making the best use of the opportunities offered by small classes. In research which shows class size to have little effect on pupil attainment, that is because teachers don’t adjust their style to suit. If exclusions from school have fallen (43,000 in 2005 to 27,000 last year), is that because, as the document blandly assures us, “relationships” in schools have improved or because many more classes are having to put up with intolerable behaviour by a minority?

Above all, statistics tell us almost nothing about what is taught and learnt. We can debate endlessly whether teachers are held in the respect that is required for sound learning, we can argue over whether examinations have become easier, we can complain – faced with rising costs – that the vastly expanded university system does not offer today’s school leavers the quality of education available 40 years ago. These important discussions are not addressed by such data, and yet these are the arguments that fire a real desire for change. Properly assessing an education system is more complex, difficult and expensive than a statistical summary will ever be.

• Lindsay Paterson is Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University.