Leader comment: Time running out to sort out education

Another report on standards in Scottish education has caused further embarrassment for the Scottish Government, with a fall in literary skills recorded over the past four years and no change to the attainment gap.

John Swinney has been tasked with sorting out Scottish education but reports continue to underline how far standards have fallen.

The report reinforces a similar assessment in the international Pisa survey five months ago, in which Scotland’s schools recorded their worst ever performance.

These damning verdicts would normally topple an education minister, because they are, as John Swinney has said, “not good enough”. Mr Swinney survives, however, because he was moved into his current position a year ago, which was the end-point of the four-year Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy published yesterday. Similarly, the Pisa survey covered virtually the same period.

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But what Mr Swinney’s party must take responsibility for is that the decline in standards happened on their watch. The SNP has been in power now for ten years, and while First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last year recognised our poor performance in education and asked to be judged on her record there, the situation should not have arisen in the first place.

Mr Swinney is right when he says there is no overnight fix, but he has to provide evidence of progress soon if anyone is to believe the Scottish Government can put right what has gone wrong.

However, while the SNP has culpability here, there are other factors at play which are not in their control. The digital age means that children are less likely than their predecessors to pick up a book, and only a very small number ever read with someone at home. It is the same story for counting and word games, which are rarely played. Yet every country faces these issues.

By far the bigger problem is lack of resource. As has been reported recently, there are an alarming number of teacher vacancies in schools, and staff retention is a problem. Austerity has been blamed for cuts to education budgets, putting pressure on class sizes and classroom space.

This is an area where the Scottish Government can make headway, because if education is to be a priority, it will need more than just reform to transform attainment levels. Without sufficient financial support – which is in the gift of the Scottish Government – our teachers cannot make the required difference.