In August 2015, Nicola Sturgeon declared that education, not the cause of Scottish independence to which she has devoted her political life, was the policy area that mattered most to her. “Let me be clear—I want to be judged on this” she said. “If you are not, as first minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to? It really matters.”
Four years later, this seems a bolder pledge than ever. For a long time, education was something that Scots prided themselves on doing well. Scotland’s distinctive education system—broad-based, largely comprehensive—was both different from and superior to the way education was done in England. Civic Scotland, that great amorphous accumulation of Scottish received and frequently conceited wisdom, bathed itself in superiority.
And there was, it must be allowed, something to this. Before the great expansion of higher education south of the border, the typical pupil in Scotland was significantly more likely to attend university than their typical counterpart in England. The much-cherished “lad o’ pairts” rising to eminence from humble beginnings was not a wholly mythical creation.
Those days, however, are no more and Sturgeon’s 2015 acceptance that something, somewhere, had gone wrong in Scottish education was admission enough that something had to be done. Denial was apparently no longer an option. In this, Sturgeon at least offered a refreshing realism that provided some hope the years of refusing to accept there might be room for improvement were now over. The trouble comes when that rhetoric has to be translated into action.
Since then there have been some successes, including the overall number of qualifications gained by Scottish pupils. And as Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament this week, “The percentage of school leavers who are getting a level 5 qualification”—broadly comparable to a GCSE—“has increased from 71 per cent when we took office to 85 per cent now.” If this is the lowest of low bars to clear, it is happier news that the number of pupils leaving school with at least one Higher (somewhere between an AS and an A level) has increased. And as the first minister put it, “for the first time ever, more than 30 per cent of pupils are achieving […] at least five passes at Higher level, which is up from just over 20 per cent in 2009.”
Nevertheless, as even Sturgeon admitted, “on wider performance, we know that there is more work to be done in Scottish education, which is why it remains this government’s top priority.” There remains a suspicion, hard to shake, that the Scottish government’s metrics for success are more generous than they should be and that, even when making such allowances, the system as a whole is not functioning as it should.
If that is the case, it is a failure with many parents. Although the SNP has been in office at Holyrood for a dozen years, every Scottish political party supported the development of the new “Curriculum for Excellence” that has been implemented on the SNP’s watch. Notionally, this was to be a “progressive” curriculum, in which inter-disciplinary teaching would be emphasised as part of a “holistic” and “joined-up” approach to learning. In practice, it has often proved confusing and prompted widespread suspicions that rigour has been sacrificed.
Although the Scottish government produces vast quantities of data, it is more difficult to ascertain the true state of Scottish education than it might, or should, be. The Scottish government abruptly cancelled annual surveys of literacy and numeracy that had, on the whole, shown declining levels of both. It did so on the grounds that the surveys, though accepted as statistically robust by its own officials, relied on data from just a small sample of pupils. In its place, a new set of standardised tests would be introduced, including for pupils in their first year of primary school.
In the face of union and professional opposition, however, these tests themselves have been watered down to the point at which they will not actually be standardised at all—pupils will sit them at different points in the school year—thereby eroding the quality, and usefulness, of the data furnished by them. Conveniently, comparisons with the previous surveys of literacy and numeracy will also not be possible, bolstering the suspicion that these surveys were abolished because their results were politically unhelpful.
That suspicion, low as it may be, is given greater credence by the SNP government’s decision to withdraw Scottish pupils from two of the three major international surveys of comparative pupil performance. At the very least, this suggests a certain lack of confidence in Scotland’s education system and this is so even if you might doubt the usefulness of such international comparisons.
Even so, the picture of Scottish performance revealed by the biannual Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—the one international survey in which Scottish pupils still take part—is not encouraging. Ministers trumpeted an improvement in reading scores when the most recent PISA results were published last year but did not encourage journalists to note that the 2019 figures showed only a return to levels of achievement reached in 2009.
And that was the good news. According to John Swinney, the education secretary, the PISA results were “very encouraging” and “the latest sign that our education reforms are working. Scottish schools are improving and this international study confirms that.” Since the PISA tests revealed that Scotland’s performance in maths and science had fallen, this seemed further confirmation of an education secretary, and a government, playing fast and loose with the truth. Maybe denialism persists after all.
Indeed, the story of Scottish education, at least as revealed by the PISA tests, is one of near-constant decline since 1999. As Lindsay Paterson, professor of education at Edinburgh University, put it last month, the overall impression is of a system “stagnating in mediocrity.” That decline, both relative to OECD peers and clear in absolute terms too, pre-dates the SNP’s arrival in office but has not been arrested by the nationalists either. At best, Scottish pupils now perform at or around the OECD average in reading and maths, while being below it in science.
If this, as Swinney says, is “very encouraging” then Scotland is beset by what George W Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” For a country which once thought itself among the world’s best in education, this should be thought a humbling decline. At the very least it is no longer possible to claim, credibly, that Scotland’s education system outperforms England’s. That would once have been unthinkable; today it is not merely thinkable, it is obvious.
Real change will not be easy. The SNP has already pulled one education bill—which would, among other measures, have created new regional education boards—in the face of professional and local authority opposition. New ideas and fresh thinking are notable for their absence and the suspicion lingers that for all the rhetoric, the SNP is still reluctant to accept the true scale of the problem. SNP politicians, led by Sturgeon, routinely accuse critics of “talking down” Scotland’s children whenever problems or shortcomings are raised; opposition is not just misplaced, it is in some sense indecent too. That too hints at a government, and a system, with a problem. As “top priorities” go, this one is not going very well.