Education Scotland: PISA rankings show just how Nicola Sturgeon has failed our children - Brian Monteith

It is often argued that Nicola Sturgeon’s greatest failure as First Minister was in not advancing the cause of independence further than her predecessor, Alex Salmond, who at least delivered a referendum. It is a fair comment, given the amount of her and her Government’s time, huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and the distortion of all domestic policy towards achieving that goal, but it tends to come from those disappointed by her failure.

There is no doubt that thanks to Sturgeon Scottish independence is a long way off, and Humza Yousaf is excelling in his continuity approach by making the possibility even more distant. Yet, on balance it was not Sturgeon’s biggest failing, it is my contention that particular award goes to her failure to improve Scottish education.

As First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had just one job, she said so herself, for she wrote her own job description and broadcast it to the world, saying “Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”

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Well, she was right, education does really matter. Nicola Sturgeon claimed she would close the attainment gap and in so doing raise the standards of Scottish education – but last week we were given conclusive proof in the international court of comparative educational standards – and Sturgeon failed, and failed badly.

A teacher and students in a classroom. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA WireA teacher and students in a classroom. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
A teacher and students in a classroom. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

The results of the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) were published last week and showed Scotland’s results for reading, science and maths falling to record lows.

Since the last PISA assessments held in 2018, the comparative performance of Scotland’s 15-year-olds dropped 18 points in maths, 11 points in reading and seven points in science. For the first time the results for Scotland in maths and science fell below the OECD average.

There are some who will seek to pass the blame on to disruption caused by the lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but that was a world-wide event and affected other nations too. In particular the fall in Scotland’s scores has been sharper than in England, despite similar lockdown rules. The Scotsman reported, “Once the best-performing nation in the UK, Scotland now lags behind England by 21 points in maths, by 20 points in science, and by three points in reading.”

The pandemic lockdowns are, therefore, a red herring. The real answer must lie in the policies taken by the Scottish Parliament and ultimately the SNP.

No sooner did the Scottish Parliament open its doors then first the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive, and then the SNP Scottish Government began to reverse the educational reforms that had been introduced in the nineties. The hope of giving parents a greater say in their children’s schooling by establishing school councils was repeatedly undermined until they were eventually abolished.

The previous opening-up of individual school standards by publishing performance data was rubbed out. The ability to enforce discipline at school level was ended by limiting and then removing exclusion decisions from headteachers. Eventually Her Majesty’s Schools Inspectorate was disappeared by merging it into another agency and Scotland stopped participating in a range of international comparisons.

Without any information being made available so we could see what was happening, either domestically or internationally, Scotland’s curriculum was meanwhile handed over to a progressive system more interested in how learning took place than in providing pupils with measurable knowledge. Many in the teaching profession, especially headteachers, tried to warn of the dangerous direction Scotland was taking with its new Curriculum of Excellence – but the SNP stubbornly refused to listen.

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Fortunately the one international comparison that Scotland still participates in has blown the educational scam wide open. It has shown that not only is Scotland’s comparative performance of teaching reading, maths and science falling behind the rest of the world – but is now well behind that of English schools. Contributing to that failure is the revelation in the PISA data, discovered by Conservative Party researchers, of the appalling fall in Scottish school discipline with shocking statistics on bullying, threats of violence and actual harm compared to other countries. Without a peaceful classroom conducive to learning our teachers and the majority of pupils wanting to progress are put at a huge disadvantage.

Humza Yousaf, SNP politicians and other nationalists will prefer if education is made the latest grievance upon which they can transfer their culpability to Westminster, the Treasury, the English establishment, English local authorities – essentially anyone but themselves. But they will be making a very big mistake.

There is no hiding-place for Nicola Sturgeon or Humza Yousaf. Since the formative days of the Acts of Union the education of Scots has always been determined in Scotland by Scots to meet Scottish needs. Maintaining a distinct Scottish education system was one of the defining aspects of preserving particularly separate Scottish institutions, the others being the maintenance of our separate justice system and protecting the pre-eminence of the Church of Scotland. The failure of Scottish education is owned entirely by our devolved government and in that respect the SNP’s responsibility as the governing party over the last 16 years.

Nicola Sturgeon failed and Humza Yousaf continues her wrong-headed approach. We must change the way education is run in Scotland and the lessons from other countries are there to teach us what to do.



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