Nicola Sturgeon once declared education to be her priority but the international Pisa assessment programme made depressing reading, writes John McLellan.
It seems a long time ago when the SNP accepted it had lost the independence referendum, and the new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared her priority was education and in 2016 emphasised her determination by putting her most able minister, John Swinney, in charge of Scotland’s schools.
The three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) is the only way of measuring what that commitment really means and the latest data published this week proved beyond all doubt that whatever effort the SNP is making, it is woefully inadequate.
Produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2,969 students in 107 Scottish secondary schools were assessed last year for reading, maths and science alongside those in 35 other countries.
Back in March, I wrote that this month would be, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “squeaky bum time” for Mr Swinney and sure enough Scotland scored its lowest-ever marks for maths and science, sliding since 2000 from fifth to 31st for maths and ninth to 29th for science. Only reading showed a slight recovery back to 2015 levels, but there has still been a drop from sixth place to 15th.
Socio-economic inequality has been reduced, but the data shows it has been by lowering the standards of middle-class children, rather than raising the standards of the less well-off. The opposite has happened in England.
“These are very encouraging results and the latest sign that our education reforms are working,“ said a brave Mr Swinney. “Today’s report should give people a strong sense that we are on the right track, making substantial progress and seeing results where it counts – in the classroom.”
Perhaps Mr Swinney’s definition of encouraging is a reflection of Scotland’s literacy attainment, because experts in the field were quick to condemn the results, with educationalist Keir Bloomer, one of the architects of the original Curriculum for Excellence reforms, describing the Scottish Government’s interpretation as a deception. “The awfulness of the results has been overshadowed by the Scottish Government’s reaction,” he wrote in the Times. “The unsatisfactory position in maths and substantial decline in science are described as a ‘stable’ performance. This barefaced attempt to deceive suggests a greater commitment to managing news than facing reality and pursuing educational improvement. It has chosen to portray the improvement in reading as a major success when, in reality, it represents a modest recovery that still leaves the system well below the standards of 15 years ago.” Scottish education was “stagnating in mediocrity”, according to Edinburgh University’s professor of education policy Lindsay Paterson. “In reading, Scotland has taken a decade of enormous upheaval in schools to get back to where it started. In maths and science, the decline continues,” he wrote in the Times Education Supplement. “Despite a decade of austerity, students facing difficult socio-economic circumstances do better in England than in Scotland. Scotland’s overall performance is best described as stagnating in mediocrity.”
Once Mr Swinney and his colleagues realise just how badly their complacent reaction has gone down in education circles, they will no doubt find some way of blaming Tory austerity or whatever for this dreadful performance, but then accepting the praise for everything and the blame for nothing has been the hallmark of the SNP in government.
The question is what the SNP plans to do about it, and being charitable it must be presumed the private conversations are a lot more serious than the public attempts at face-saving. The key may be in the parallel questionnaire for teachers which showed greater concern than in England about truancy, lack of respect, attention-deficit, intimidation and bullying. After 12 years in charge, the SNP has not only presided over a decline in educational attainment but despite what Mr Swinney said the problems go far beyond the classroom. And this is an SNP priority.