Tom Peterkin: No hiding place from damning school report card

Nicola Sturgeon asked to be judged on education  but the latest statistics put that pledge under real risk of backfiring.
Nicola Sturgeon asked to be judged on education  but the latest statistics put that pledge under real risk of backfiring.
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Alarming statistics show work needed to turn round education for the next generation writes Tom Peterkin

It looks as if Nicola Sturgeon made herself a hostage to fortune when she staked her political reputation on sorting out the Scottish education system.

Nearly two years after the First Minister asked the public to judge her on her education record, another worrying set of statistics has confirmed all is not well in Scotland’s classrooms.

Fewer than half of 13- and 14-year-old pupils are performing well at writing, according to the Scottish Government’s own figures.

No progress has been made when it comes to closing the attainment gap that sees children from well-off backgrounds outperform their poorer counterparts. Ms Sturgeon has made closing the attainment gap her top priority, presumably because she shares the anger felt by most people over the injustice that a child’s disadvantaged background can have such a damaging effect on his or her prospects.

Yet, according to the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), no inroads into this problem have been made by the SNP administration.

Of particular concern was the performance of teenagers in their second year at secondary school.

Under the SNP’s watch – from 2012 to 2016 – the proportion of S2 pupils who performed well in writing fell from 64 per cent to 49 per cent.

Furthermore, the percentage not able to write to the minimum set standard rose from 7 per cent to 16 per cent.

Similar trends were found at primary level, with the proportion of P7 kids able to write well falling from 72 per cent to 65 per cent.

Reading standards are also on the wane with a slight fall when it comes to that essential skill among children in primaries four and seven.

These are troubling statistics and they come on the back of host of other indicators which suggest that the Scottish education has become a pale imitation of a system that was once the envy of the world.

It was at the end of last year that the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) for 2015 found Scotland has fallen down international league tables for maths, reading and science, when compared to 34 other developed countries and the UK’s three other home nations.

According to Pisa, Scotland no longer performs above the international average in the three subject areas when compared to other developed countries and the other home nations.

It was the worst ever Scottish performance recorded by Pisa, which also found that Scotland has fallen down the league tables in every report conducted since the SNP came to power a decade ago.

Further analysis of the Pisa data by the Sutton Trust found there was no area where the brightest Scottish 15-year-olds “really excel” and that their academic performance was behind the most able teenagers south of the Border.

Damningly, the think tank also found that bright kids from poor backgrounds lag behind their wealthy classmates by the equivalent of more than two and a half years of schooling.

When these hugely unflattering findings became public, the SNP argued that they covered a period prior to the school reforms being proposed by education secretary John Swinney.

It was a staggeringly weak response given that the SNP has been in charge of Scottish education since 2007.

The challenges facing Mr Swinney and Ms Sturgeon were underlined further yesterday when several teachers gave evidence to Holyrood’s education committee.

It did not make happy listening. To hear dedicated professionals talk of the severe strain they are under, the bureaucratic hoops that have to be jumped through, the overbearing workload, the poor pay and their lack of recognition, was not an uplifting experience.

Given the alarm bells ringing about the literacy and numeracy levels of our children, it was not encouraging to hear that trainee teachers are graduating without sufficient skills to teach maths to primary seven pupils.

The independence referendum may be the obsession of the political classes, but for others the challenge of educating the coming generations is of more immediate concern.

Around dinner tables, the state versus private education arguments are rehearsed ad nauseam, while the merits of various catchment areas and their associated schools are discussed passionately.

That is a product of an education system where a child’s life chances can depend on their postcode. With property prices an average of £100,000 more in catchment areas for the best performing state schools, it is possible for parents to buy a better education for their children without resorting to the private sector. But that is only an option for the better off – the kind of people who can also afford to supplement their children’s education by paying for private tuition at home.

But for those whose parents are not so fortunate, the outlook can be bleak.

Having tied her fortunes to her government’s handling of the education system, it is not helpful for Ms Sturgeon that its iniquitous short-comings are being highlighted as she heads into a general election. But as the First Minister knows, this is about much more than her political future. At stake is the future of our youngsters and generations to come.