Why do Scots kids start failing in their teens?

Share this article
Have your say

WHILE most Scots pupils are excelling in primary school, why are so many failing to make the grade when they reach secondary?

IT’S a well-known joke in high school staff rooms. Secondary teachers ­believe in werewolves. After all, have you seen the way 11-year-old children change into 13-year-old ­monsters?

The line was wheeled out again last week after the publication of results from a series of new tests on the standards of literacy and numeracy in Scotland’s classrooms. On the face of it, education ministers could be well satisfied; 90 per cent of pupils in primary and early secondary school were working either within or beyond the expected levels in reading and writing. But within the headline ­figures published, a host of familiar ­issues emerged.

There was the “drop-off” problem, as ­alluded to in the teachers’ joke above – as pupils leaving primary school appear to fall away in the early years of secondary. There was the large gap in attainment ­between pupils from deprived parts of the country and those in the most well-off areas. And then there was the perennial question of overall standards – pupils may have been meeting targets, the survey suggested, but are those expectations high enough? Scottish education has, to its ­critics, rested complacently on a now dusty reputation as the best in the world. Nonetheless, ministers last week insisted the new survey showed that Scotland’s education system was, officially, “good”. Is it really? And if not, what needs improving?

The figures last week illustrated that the picture is far from simple. Taken last year, and based on a sample of more than 10,000 pupils, the new test was ­designed to assess the Curriculum for ­Excellence system as it rolls its way through primaries and secondaries. Pupils were asked a series of questions (the reading test for P7 asked children to examine a Wildlife Trust leaflet on binoculars, and then answer some basic questions on it). They were then marked as either performing very well, well, “within the level”, or not yet working within the level required. At first glance, it appears that for most pupils, all is fine. Only a small percentage of pupils were shown to be “not yet working at the level” required; in reading it amounted to 1 per cent at P4, 2 per cent at P7 and 3 per cent at S2. By contrast, the numbers of those deemed to be working “above” the level were 45 per cent in P4, 60 per cent at P7 and 45 per cent at P7. It allowed schools minister Alasdair Allan to conclude that the new curriculum and a focus on literacy means that “Scottish education is continuing to get better”.

But unintentionally, the survey results offered a decent yardstick of the system as a whole. “Good”, perhaps, yet there are those nagging issues which betray growing concern about the big picture.

Nearly one in five S2 pupils failed to meet the required standard in the “listening and talking” section. And a significant minority did not manage to perform “well” in writing and reading. For some, the natural role of puberty is largely to blame. One teacher notes: “Kids in the early part of secondary are growing up. They are rebelling and growing their own personalities. Then by the time you get to S4 you find that the problems you saw at S2 have gone and there’s a massive improvement.”

But for others, it highlights a continuing problem. Tina Woolnough, of the ­National Parent Forum of Scotland, says: “It’s always been a problem. Yes, there’s a personal and social transformation. But the transition [between primary and secondary] needs to be worked on. You end up with a fresh start and a clean slate for children, which isn’t helpful.” There is a communication problem as well, she suggests; are schools doing enough to let parents know what their children are doing? “If you just ask your teenage child, ‘how was school?’, you don’t get anywhere. But if you know they’re learning about the Second World War, then you can ask them about that. It makes a big difference, just to help keep the conversation going.”

Then there was the figure showing that at S2, for example, the percentage of ­pupils from better-off areas who were performing “well” or “very well” at reading was 16 points higher than those ­living in more deprived homes. The failure of the Scottish education system to cross the wealth divide is no longer a point of ­debate, so well-established has it become.

Larry ­Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest teaching union, ­says practical problems in class are to blame, not the curriculum. Perhaps, he says, targeted smaller classes in schools with more deprived catchment areas are the answer. “Where they don’t have the same access to books or the parents who are reading with them, then the pupil has to learn more at school to compensate and the bigger the class the more you are pushed into a whole class approach. A one-to-one labour-intensive process may be required.”

Then there is the question of whether the standards themselves are simply not high enough. Even though pupils only had to get 60 per cent of answers right to be adjudged as reading “well”, the ­survey found that, for example, 10 per cent of youngsters at the end of primary school were failing to do so. The UK government’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is now demanding a newly academic approach – and has walked into controversy recently with his own new literacy tests for 11-year-olds focusing heavily on the rights and wrongs of spelling, punctuation and grammar. One of the country’s leading educational experts, Professor Lindsay Paterson, recently praised Gove’s academic approach, and warned that Scotland was “slipping back”. “We are mediocre, halfway up OECD ­tables,” he said.

The claim that standards are being sacrificed at the altar of inclusivity and expression in Scotland is refuted by many others in the system. And most leaders, teachers, and the Parents Forum, say they back the aims of the new Curriculum for Excellence and the Scottish approach. The issue hangs, however, over the best way to deliver it – and to meet the problems highlighted in last week’s survey. And that is focusing attention on the structure of the system itself.

A report by the Commission for School Reform last month, chaired by former director of education Keir Bloomer, concluded that crucial to the task of improving schools was to hand them far more autonomy. Individual schools, it concluded, were “reluctant” to grab the initiative because of a “disempowering” and “hier­archical” structure which saw schools handing responsibility to the next layer up. The result was a confusion over who exactly was supposed to be in control. “Headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous bodies. At the same time, it is imperative that a collegiate culture should exist within schools,” it added.

The importance of leadership has also now been identified in a new study by Glasgow University’s School of Education which assessed a series of schools in deprived parts of the city which had done exceptionally well in ensuring pupils left for positive destinations. It concluded that key factors included the “importance of a strong leadership” in the school and extensive and early support for pupils from skills and careers experts. Leaders in the three schools which had performed outstandingly, the report concluded, “articulated what we will describe as a vision of expectation of all pupils. This vision of expectation was expressed in an ethos of success that was shared with staff.”

These examples, it could be argued, are signs the current system is helping to produce success. But is a wider structural and cultural reform as proposed by the Commission required to ensure that inspiring school leadership – like that found in the Glasgow schools – is encouraged everywhere? Education secretary Mike Russell has previously said he is “open” to reforms like those considered by East Lothian Council where a group of schools had thought of running themselves at arms length from the local authority.

One leading education figure notes that while the Curriculum for Excellence was designed to give teachers more freedom to act as they pleased, many teachers have responded by asking education authorities for guidance on what to do. Publishing the Commission for School Reform report last month, another head, Frank Lennon of Dunblane High School, declared: “Often it is the sense of working in a debilitating culture of disempowerment and a feeling of overburdening ­bureaucracy that impairs creative thinking at school level. Decisions which can be taken competently at a school level should be taken at a school level without higher interference – that way we can release the creativity that exists in Scotland’s schools and embed a culture of excellence in our system from the ground up.”

Woolnough adds: “Teaching has been very prescribed and creativity maybe has been taken out of people. We have lots of brilliant teachers but I think the system has been designed to stick to process and procedures.”

Last week’s figures highlighted issues which are well-known to most education experts. The attainment gap between pupils of different backgrounds in Scotland was identified by an OECD report in 2006. The need to try to tackle the transition from primary and secondary, perhaps by allowing primary teachers into secondaries, was put forward by the then education minister Jack McConnell in 2003.

The problems, judging from last week’s figures, appear to be the same. The question for this generation of education leaders is whether they are able to find a solution that has evaded their predecessors.

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23