Scott Macnab: Education figures are another blot on the SNP's report card

After deriding Labour promises to win votes and power in 2007, the Scottish Government is now wide open to criticism over its own record, writes Scott Macnab

John Swinney is pressing on with further change in schools after a challenging picture of current standards was unveiled yesterday.
John Swinney is pressing on with further change in schools after a challenging picture of current standards was unveiled yesterday.

When Nicola Sturgeon told Scots she wanted to be judged on her education record, she was placing the issue firmly at the heart of the political agenda. The First Minister may have been referring specifically to the attainment gap between richer and poorer areas, but her landmark speech at Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes education centre a year ago meant opposition parties would be quick to pick up on perceived dip in standards in Scotland’s classrooms.

That’s why yesterday’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, showing a slump in our education system, are such a concern. Scotland is declining in reading, maths and science. We have fallen behind nations like Poland and Slovenia well as England and Northern Ireland in the UK. That the slump is so bad in the key areas like maths and science, the key skills which ministers want to foster for the workforce of the future, is a major worry. It is already being pilloried as the “legacy” of 10 years of SNP rule in Scotland. As the constitutional agenda dominated the political landscape, big cuts to education and council funding, as well as the disappearance of thousands of teachers from the country’s classrooms have been overshadowed since the Nationalists came to power in 2007. That much of this is down to swingeing cuts to Scotland’s devolved budget from Westminster seem to be neither here nor there in the eyes of the opposition.

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Similarly, the fact that the 15-year-olds assessed in yesterday’s survey started their school journey when Labour and the Liberal Democrats were still in power has also been largely passed over. So Education Secretary John Swinney’s appeal for a “decent” debate on the issue fell on deaf ears as he faced a grilling from MSPs on the issue yesterday.

But perhaps the SNP only has itself to blame for this. When Alex Salmond won power for the party in Scotland with his historic election triumph in 2007, it came after a campaign deriding Labour promises to protect education funding. Jack McConnell, then Labour leader, had promised that funding for the next generation in Scotland’s classrooms would be ring-fenced and all other departments would have to “cut their cloth” accordingly. This was seized on by Nationalists who said that McConnell was effectively setting out plans to cut NHS funding. And under the SNP, teacher number have fallen by more than 4000 since 2007 - a drop of eight per cent.

The education brief has been difficult the SNP. Fiona Hyslop was the first major ministerial casualty of that inaugural Nationalist regime as the party’s flagship pledge to cut class sizes to 18 in the early years of primary proved way too ambitious to deliver. Similarly Angela Constance didn’t last long in the post after an early broadside that poverty was no excuse for poor education outcomes sparked a frosty relationship with the teaching profession and she was moved in Nicola Sturgeon’s first major cabinet reshuffle after this year’s Holyrood election.

Ms Constance was replaced by the man widely seen as the SNP’s safest pair of hands, the so-called “minister for everything” John Swinney. And the prescription set out by Mr Swinney is further widespread reform of a system which has just come through one of the most sweeping overhauls in a generation. The Curriculum for Excellence was to deliver a revolution in Scottish teaching making the school experience more practical for youngsters, plugging the classroom into the real world. The principle was fine, but teachers grew frustrated with the burgeoning workload associated with the new system and the exams which accompanied them. More than 20,000 pages of guidance were reputedly issued by the Scottish Government’s teaching quango Education Scotland and Mr Swinney was quick to acknowledge this had simply become “unnavigable” for teachers and pledged to introduce a more simplified system.

One of Scotland’s most senior educationalists, Professor Lindsay Paterson, was quick to point out yesterday that the cohort of Scots 15-year-olds surveyed in yesterday’s results were entirely educated under the new system. He certainly felt that the blame for the decline must lie squarely with the new regime. And further upheaval is now on the agenda to deal with the latest figures. Mr Swinney has already set out proposals which would see the introduction of new educational regions in Scotland which see “cluster” groups of schools coming together to share best practice and drive up standards across the board. This plan has already come under fire from local councils who fear they are being sidelined from the role they have in running schools. Some teachers are also believed to be uncomfortable with the idea of gaining control of hiring new teaching staff amid fears it will turn them into accountants.

The approach seems remarkably similar to the academy system being adopted south of the border, and widely pilloried by the SNP. But if yesterday’s figures show nothing else, then it is surely that the need for change in Scottish education is imperative. Swinney at least seems prepared to face up to this. One of his predecessors, Michael Russell, was accused of hiding from the issue when he withdrew Scotland from other international comparisons, as he judged there was no need for the annual £800,000 fee to take part in the Trends in International Maths and Science Survey (Timss) as well as the Progress in International Ready Literacy Survey (PIRLS). The move came under fire when research suggested it had led to ineffectual teaching techniques including group work, active learning and technology.

The cornerstone of the SNP’s success in recent years was in showing that it could be trusted with devolved issues. But as Scotland’s economy diverges from the rest of the UK, questions emerge over the reliability of trains and the opposition increasingly round on the SNP’s record in managing the NHS, this latest gloomy news from Scotland’s schools will be the last thing Nicola Sturgeon needs in a week which saw her own approval ratings and support for independence hit the skids.