If the SNP was being marked on its handling of Scottish education over the last decade, it wouldn’t get an F — it would get expelled.
Education was central to the Nationalist pitch in 2007, back when they still pretended to care about things other than BBC mind control and Union Jacks on punnets of Tesco strawberries. Their manifesto promised an 18-child cap on primary one, two and three classes. Today, the average class size is 23.5.
Curriculum for Excellence, introduced despite the concerns of teachers and unions, sought to streamline assessment but succeeded only in confusing educators and adding to their workload. Roughly 4,000 teachers have been cut on the SNP’s watch and at one secondary school in John Swinney’s constituency the headmistress was so understaffed she had to ask parents to help teach mathematics.
It is perhaps unsurprising that attainment in numeracy has also declined. We are fortunate to know about it, though, since the SNP withdrew Scotland from two of the most respected surveys of educational attainment, like a football team that announces it would quite like to play on without the referee getting in the way. A much-touted governance review has been put on the back-burner.
The latest Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), the report card on attainment in Scotland’s schools, confirms that little has improved during the tenure of education secretary John Swinney. In category after category, pupils in primary one, four, and secondary two are making no progress in reading and writing. That’s the good news. In other areas, results are going backwards. Between 2012 and 2016, there was ‘no difference’ in performance at primary four while students in the final year of primary and the second year of high school were doing worse in 2016. Writing attainment fell seven percentage points in primary seven and 15 in secondary two.
In reading, the deprivation gap — the difference between results for the best- and worst-off youngsters — is exactly what it was five years ago. Across all income groups, primary four pupils have shown ‘no difference’ in their performance, while those in primary seven and secondary two have seen their marks decline. Only 22% of secondary two pupils report reading novels outside school while only 14% read factual books.
In short, the survey does not make for upbeat reading. Amid the graphs and charts and footnotes are the stories of tens of thousands of children who are being left behind in a schooling regimen that was once the envy of the world. (Don’t worry, though; this is the last time it is being published. From next year, pupil performance will be measured by ‘teacher professional judgements’ rather than ‘independently marked or assessed performance against a set assessment or task’.)
These latest figures are a record of long-term systemic failure, not simply of delivery but of the management of education by the Scottish Government. The education secretary has given a good speech or two in the last 12 months but there has been little beyond warm words. Whenever a failing is uncovered, Mr Swinney launches a review amid fanfare but it is seldom heard from again.
What shields Mr Swinney from any consequences is his leading role within the SNP hierarchy. That, and the common agreement among colleagues, journalists and educationalists that he inherited a disaster from his predecessor Angela Constance, a minister so out of her depth the coastguard should have been called out.
Ultimately, the SSLN’s findings reflect on one minister: the First Minister.
At noon tomorrow, Nicola Sturgeon will pause her General Election campaigning for First Minister’s Questions, where she is sure to be asked about these figures. She’ll break out the head tilt and the big sad eyes; ‘I understand why parents are disappointed. I am too,’ she’ll say, before pivoting to investment levels and a dig at Westminster. ‘Education is still my number one priority,’ she’ll insist, to gales of derision.
Miss Sturgeon is not callous; she’s not indifferent to the plight of the disadvantaged. But it is not what gets her out of bed in the morning nor the last thing she thinks of at night. She is a nationalist and there is no shame in that but she ought to be honest about what animates her politics. Nye Bevan preached that ‘the language of priorities’ was ‘the religion of socialism’. In the religion of Scottish nationalism, there is only one priority. There is no point in asking the First Minister if independence is really worth all this, if she wouldn’t rather that her legacy was improving the lot of the poor and the struggling. Her answer will be the same as when she joined the SNP aged 16: Independence – first, last, always.
Schoolchildren are useful props on the campaign trail but that seems to be all they are to the First Minister as they don’t get to put a cross on the ballot paper. Moreover, solving the endemic flaws in Scotland’s education system is a full-time task — some might call it a ‘day job’ — and however much Miss Sturgeon may sympathise with pupils leaving primary school unable to read and write properly, she has locked in a time frame for a second independence referendum and can’t revise it now. Tackling the social indicators of educational inequality is a worthy endeavour but it doesn’t fit neatly onto a message grid.
All is not lost, though. For those with the means, there is the option of hiring a private tutor to coach your offspring through their maths or English exams. It’ll set you back about £20 an hour but what’s that when your child’s future is at stake. The price of a curry or a nice bottle of wine? Of course most parents would be prepared to make sacrifices here and there to secure the best opportunities for their progeny.
What about those who have no more sacrifices to give, no more cloth to cut? Those working two jobs to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table. They have no roll of tenners squirreled away in an old Nescafe jar; private tutoring is out of the question. How they wish they could afford the extra help; how they lie awake at night beating themselves up about it. Their children are from the most deprived areas of the country, the ones who suffer the most from the torpor of a government that gets worked up about everything except the things that matter.
The SNP is not only failing pupils but their parents too, depriving them of what should be the right of every mother and father: to hand their children a better start in life than they had. No one should have to hire in a tutor, even if they do have the spare cash to pay for it.
Then again, precious little is as it should be in Scottish education. It should be meeting the most rigorous standards. It should not have been removed from international comparators. It should be closing the gap between the deprived and the wealthy.
It should be the top priority of the First Minister and her government. Independence may mean everything to Nicola Sturgeon but one woman’s lifelong dream means little to pupils watching their dreams slip away.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.