Scotland's education system is, historically, envied by much of the world. No longer. Carole Ford looks at what's happened.
For many years the Scottish education system has had a worldwide reputation for excellence. It would be fair to say that many people regarded it as one of the best in the world. It would also be fair to say that its current slide into mediocrity, under the auspices of an SNP government, is nothing short of tragic. Certainly, for the young people in the system, who now have to compete for training places and employment on an international level, it is indeed tragic.
Let there be no mistake. The government’s own statistics show a sharp decline in standards in both literacy and numeracy, the key areas which largely determine future progress in education. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy documents this decline in stark detail: 5% in Primary 4 reading, 9% in Secondary 2 writing, 6% in Primary 7 numeracy. These are just a few of the depressing statistics. In every category, at every level, standards have fallen significantly, with the single exception of S2 numeracy, which has stagnated.
Incredibly, given the SNP rhetoric on social justice, the fall in standards is more marked in areas of multiple deprivation. SNP policies are actually managing to increase the educational gap between the more and the less affluent in society. Add to this the fact that independent schools are now outperforming state schools to the greatest extent in history. The rhetoric on social justice is hollow indeed.
How has the SNP managed to inflict so much damage on the education system? For the most part it has been the implementation of damaging strategies based on populist, misguided policies, and in direct contradiction to professional advice - in some cases, in direct contradiction to common sense.
The most significant barrier to excellence is the complete absence of a formal primary school curriculum and the total absence of expected standards or of assessment of pupil progress. For the first seven crucial years of a child’s education there is no monitoring of the work of teachers or the schools. The complete and total lack of accountability is a monumental error and has had the predictable, and predicted, result.
The outcomes and experiences which profess to define the curriculum are wide open to individual interpretation and therefore completely fail to set standards. For example: I can find a fraction of an amount by applying my knowledge of division. Does this mean calculate ½ of 20 or calculate 1/9 of 58.5? There is a significant difference in the level of difficulty between those questions, yet they both meet the curricular requirement. A teacher can readily ‘cover’ the curriculum without ever tackling sufficiently challenging content. When content is vague, defined by the individual teacher, and no standards are applied, a downhill slide is inevitable. This probably explains the sharper fall in areas of disadvantage.
The depressing statistics apply not only to literacy and numeracy: a 40% drop in foreign language qualifications, including 20% in Gaelic (ironically enough); senior pupils attaining only 74% of Scottish university places, squeezed out by higher performing students from other countries.
As an example of SNP competence, the education system presents a stark warning to us all.
Carole Ford is the retired headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy and former president of School Leaders Scotland