Writing for the Scotland on Sunday this weekend, Labour Education spokesperson Iain Gray outlines the challenges facing John Swinney in the Education brief and calls for Holyrood’s education committee to investigate falling attainment in Scotland’s exam results.
In the coming weeks school children begin returning to school, reenergised by six weeks or so of holiday, spent for the lucky ones, without a care in the world.
Spending in schools is now £400m less per year than it was in 2010
Not so John Swinney, the Education secretary charged with improving those schools and raising the attainment of those pupils.
His summer “holidays” have been marked by one bad story after another.
The parliamentary term had already ended on a humiliating note, with evidence of new tests reducing five year olds to tears, the curriculum narrowing, and finally, the shelving of the SNP’s “flagship” education bill, the very symbol of the Government’s “defining mission” to improve schools and raise attainment. Mr Swinney had spent two years on this Bill, but had failed to garner any support for measures which seemed designed more to undermine local authorities and centralise control of schools in his own hands than to empower schools as he claimed.
In a parliament which he had realised would not vote for his Bill, the education secretary ditched it, claiming that this would speed up the reforms it contained. No-one was fooled.
It then emerged that the government’s International Education Advisers had advised Mr Swinney not to legislate, in a report which went on to warn that his reforms could lead to more marketization of education, as had happened in England.
The final week fiasco was not yet over, though, as Mr Swinney found himself without a Minister for Universities and Colleges when Gillian Martin was sacked before her appointment could even be formalised. With Parliament in recess, the vacancy has stretched to two months.
If Mr Swinney thought recess would bring relief, he was wrong, initially thanks to a series of freedom of information requests. The first of these revealed his department’s attempts to “doctor” the education Advisers’ report to suggest great progress where none had been demonstrated.
Then, more damagingly, the revelation that the Cabinet Secretary had been told directly that a pilot of Yammer, Education Scotland’s social media platform for schools had seen a pornographic image uploaded and possibly viewed by children, yet he allowed the project to go live nonetheless. It seems likely the intervening weeks will not stop Parliament wanting some answers on this astonishing decision as soon as we return.
Finally, the government was forced to publish some 170 pages of a submission to them, from teachers, on their experience of those “standardised tests” in P1. The evidence of distress and upset for four and five-year-old children sitting tests which many teachers believed to be pointless was overwhelming. The Education sectary’s response, that the tests should be “fun” was, in contrast underwhelming.
If Mr Swinney was by now hankering for his halcyon days as Finance secretary, he could find no solace there. This week Labour published independent research showing that spending in schools is now £400m less per year than it was in 2010. Meanwhile, colleges have seen their budgets slashed by 10% in 10 years. Of course for most of those years of cuts to education, the purse strings were in the hands of, Mr Swinney. The Education Secretary’s attempt to dismiss cuts to schools as due to falling pupil numbers was not just weak, it was wrong. There are more pupils in our schools now than there were in 2010. The cuts are worse than they look, not better.
Then came the exam results. Attainment fell at both National and Higher level, for the third year, in what is now a trend. Worst of all, attainment in National exams is now 33.8% lower than it was in the Standard Grades they replaced. Some subjects, such as Modern Languages, have fallen even further off a cliff edge.
So, it has been a long hot summer in more ways than one for Mr Swinney, and the new school year is unlikely to bring relief.
Pupils return to schools which have 700 unfilled teacher vacancies, while the teachers we have are close now to strike action, tired of seeing their salaries eroded year on year – some 20% less than they were when the SNP came to power.
It is just over two years since Nicola Sturgeon declared that raising attainment was her government’s “defining mission”, and that there was “no better person” than John Swinney to deliver it. In fact, rather than proving to be a safe pair of hands, he has fumbled the ball on Education time and again.
New school, and Parliamentary years are traditionally seen as a fresh start. If the education secretary wants that, he has to come to Parliament and explain his decision to allow Yammer to go ahead. He must drop, once and for all, that unloved, unnecessary education Bill and its centralising reforms. He should end the testing of P1s, and go back to the drawing board on standardised tests generally.
He should ask the Education Committee to launch an investigation into those worrying trends in exam results, and if he will not, they should investigate anyway.
He should quickly agree a restorative pay rise with the teaching unions, to make the profession attractive again, and to avoid damaging industrial action no-one wants to see in our schools.
But above all he, and the First minister should commit to putting their money where their mouth is on education and restoring those cuts to schools and colleges in the next budget. Thousands of pupils did do very well in those exams, and that is testament to their hard work and their teachers, with the support of parents and carers. They deserve a government which backs them with the resources they need rather than warm words.
• Iain Gray MSP is Labour education spokesperson