New figures make for worrying readingby Willie Rennie / December 20, 2016 / Leave a comment
In the run-up to the Scottish Parliament elections in May, during a speech at Wester Hailes Education centre in Edinburgh, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke of her priorities if the Scottish people were to give her party another mandate to govern.
Rather than banging the drum for a bitter and divisive second independence referendum, she was reasonable. “My priority for my time as First Minister—and let me be clear I want to be judged on this—is that every young person should have the same advantage that I had when I was growing up in Ayrshire.” This, if we are to take her at her own words, is the “central mission” of Sturgeon’s SNP government. Her aim, she said, was to close the attainment gap “completely.”
Well the report card is in and the message is clear: under the SNP Scottish education has undergone a decade of decline.
Statistics published two weeks ago by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that Scotland’s performance in science, maths and reading was average among OECD countries in 2015. In the previous PISA survey in 2012, Scotland was above average in reading and science. This is a drastic drop. What’s more, UCAS data shows that just 9.7 per cent of those from the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland have been accepted to university, compared to 17 per cent in England and 13.9 per cent in Northern Ireland.
Estonia, Canada, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Ireland, Vietnam, New Zealand, Russia, France and England; these are just a handful of the countries which now appear above Scotland in the educational rankings—and I suspect that it is the latter which will rankle the nationalists the most. After nine years of SNP rule, Scotland is not even up there with England any more.
These international comparisons do not lie. We used to have one of the best education systems in the world, now we are going in the wrong direction.
Yet when I put it to the First Minister in the chamber that her “central mission” was an abject failure, she was incapable of providing any explanation for why Scottish education had been allowed to slip so far.
During the SNP’s time in power we’ve had four education secretaries, all of whom still sit as ministers in Nicola Sturgeon’s government. And yet what we hear from the latest Cabinet Secretary for Education, John Swinney, implies that the Scottish Government will now double down on failure.
The Scottish government intends to introduce a national framework for testing in Primary schools. This comes despite teachers, and trade union representatives such as General Secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland Larry Flanagan, warning that this will inevitably “lead to ‘teaching to the test’ and the construction of flawed and misleading league tables.” For a party so strident in its rhetoric, that it should succumb to the embrace of Thatcherite league tables is almost beyond belief.
Instead, the Cabinet Secretary should acknowledge that 150,000 pupils are in larger classes. The SNP pledged to reduce class sizes—it has failed to do so. He should acknowledge that the SNP’s decision to amalgamate curriculum and inspection bodies was a mistake that has left Education Scotland as both poacher and gamekeeper when it comes to raising standards in Scottish education.
And he should acknowledge that Education Scotland’s 20,0000 pages of guidance need to go in the shredder. They are counter-productive and prevent teachers getting on with their jobs: ensuring our children get a well-rounded education. Only when the Scottish government acknowledges these mistakes can it begin to turn the situation around.
So how would Scottish Liberal Democrats ensure our education system is world-class once more?
Our flagship policy of a penny for education would allow us to invest hundreds of millions of pounds into schools, helping to address the attainment gap and ensuring children get the best start in life.
The latest estimates from HMRC suggest that a 1p increase in income tax would raise half a billion pounds extra every year (£505m in 2017-18 and £520m the year after, to be precise). The rise in the personal allowance, championed by Liberal Democrats, means this contribution is fair and falls mainly on those with the broadest shoulders.
Our plan for a Pupil Premium will give schools £1400 for every primary school child from a poorer background and £900 for secondary. It will be paid directly to those schools and used by teachers based on their professional judgement. Evidence from England suggests that a similar Pupil Premium closed the attainment gap by 5 per cent in three years.
In the Smith commission, both the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish government pushed for bold new powers for the Scottish parliament. The difference is that my party is serious about using them to invest in a better Scotland.
The First Minister asked to be judged on education. Yet after a decade of SNP rule we have falling rates of literacy and numeracy and a growing attainment gap between rich and poor. Pupils, parents and teachers want—and deserve—better.