Euan McColm: Does our education system pass muster?

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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READERS of a certain age will recall a time when a Scottish education was considered among the best in the world. Whether this was ever the case is a moot point, but rewind 30 years or more and that’s what we told ourselves.

Since then, we’ve been more critical of our education system, less inclined to assume the best about teachers.

But exam results achieved by Scottish teenagers last week suggest that our schools have never been in finer fettle. Overall, there were 156,000 passes at Higher level, which represented a 5.5 per cent increase on 2014. English passes soared by almost 18 per cent to 27,902 and modern language passes rose by 15 per cent to 7,419.

It certainly appears that pupils are doing better than ever and that concerns about new exams introduced as part of the controversial Curriculum for Excellence were unfounded.

It’s just, well, that there’s something queer about the results, coming as they do so soon after concerns were raised about the continuing fall in literacy and numeracy standards among Scottish pupils.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy looked at the performance of pupils in P4, P7, and S2. In each age group, standards had fallen between 2012 and 2014.

Under the stewardship of former education secretary Mike Russell – reshuffled into obscurity by Nicola Sturgeon when she became First Minister last year – Scottish children became even more poorly equipped in the basics that we might expect them to pick up at school. Russell talked a good game about addressing problems in the education system but when it came to action, he was less than useless.

A great way to discover exactly how well pupils are doing at school is to compare their progress with children across the globe. It’s curious, then, that the Scottish Government withdrew our pupils from two international comparators. Scottish schoolchildren are no longer considered by researchers from either the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) or PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).

Cynics – of whom I am one – might suggest that the Scottish Government withdrew from these studies because it feared our education system might be found wanting.

It is always fashionable, of course, for successive generations to suggest that “kids today” have got it easy when it comes to exams. Just as bullets were faster, so exams were harder in our day (whenever that may have been) and, what’s more, young people today don’t even know they’re born.

This year, there was a higher pass rate among those taking revamped Highers than those sitting the older version, leading to understandable speculation that the new exams are simply easier, designed to improve pass-rates.

But whether exams are easier or not, it’s clear that, in some key subjects, pupils can be expected to do less well to achieve top grades. While pupils had to achieve 69 out of 100 marks to gain an A-grade in Higher English last year, this year they had to get 68, and in French the number of marks necessary for an A dropped from 72 to 70. Could it be not that our kids are doing better but that they are becoming more uniformly mediocre?

The drop in literacy and numeracy rates across the age groups is a national scandal. Without the basics in these areas, children begin with a potential-crippling disadvantage.

Education Secretary Angela Constance greeted the exam results with praise for the “strong performance” of Scottish pupils and noted that students are performing particularly well in English and modern languages. Labour’s acting leader Iain Gray echoed the congratulations but suggested that the difference in attainment levels between the old and new Higher would raise questions.

A Scottish Government spokesman explained, helpfully, that comparing rates between the new and existing Highers was “extremely complex”, an explanation with a fair helping of “don’t go worrying your pretty little head about things” dolloped on top.

The SNP have been criticised repeatedly by opponents for neglecting the domestic agenda in favour of manoeuvring over the constitution. And it is certainly the case that, unlike previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions at Holyrood, the SNP has shown little appetite for meaningful reform.

Establishing a new system of exams that simply makes it easier to pass does not rank as a great step forward for the education system.

Teachers and parents, alike, have raised concerns in recent years about the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence, with which ministers are deeply in love.

From concerns about having the necessary materials to teach the new courses to fears that CfE dumbed down subjects, all worries were rejected by the Scottish Government, which said that teachers only had to ask if they needed help.

So what will happen to all of these highly qualified young Scots? Presumably a many of them will want to move on to higher education. This year’s results mean a record number of young people achieving grades necessary to secure a university place. Why wouldn’t they improve their chances in life further by studying for a free degree?

More free tuition fees will mean more pressure on the further education sector, which has already lost 100,000 college places in recent years.

Free tuition fees are a dead-cert vote-winner with middle class Scotland. It’s a “progressive” policy that predominantly benefits the better off, who are most likely to vote.

The new Highers, with their improved pass rate, will mean more young Scots are able to take advantage of this generous (or deeply cynical) policy.

The Scottish education system gave the impression of being healthy this week but the results in the new ­exams along with the Scottish Government’s ongoing refusal to allow our pupils’ standards to be compared with those in other nations suggest all is not well.

The SNP has been in charge of Scotland’s schools for eight years. Isn’t it time we started asking what, exactly, the party has achieved in that time? «