James McEnaney: It's not too late for the SNP to choose the right course on education

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney takes an in-depth look at the state of education and warns it is failing under the SNP – but it’s not too late to change it

THE Scottish Government recently released the latest literacy data from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) and the news, to be blunt, is not good.

Broadly speaking, standards seem to be either stagnating or, worse, declining, with the data painting a particularly disappointing picture of pupils' writing skills.


Much was made, in particular, of the information for pupils in the second year of high school but, in this case, there is the need for a bit of a health warning around the data itself. As various people have already pointed out, the attainment levels in S2 are slightly problematic because they measure students against S3 benchmarks, essentially assessing these pupils a year early.

The SSLN system also used a slightly different approach in different areas which, although entirely reasonable, needs to be understood. The reading section of the SSLN is assessed using a reading test that any English teacher (or student) would recognise, and pupils are obviously aware that they are sitting some sort of examination. In the case of writing, however, the picture is more complex. Teachers gather two pieces of writing from difference classes which, in their view, represent the level at which the individual is working.

This doesn't make the literacy data invalid, but it is important to understand the implications: the nature of writing data is clearly different from reading data and, in secondary schools, the bar for the former is set higher than the latter.

When it comes to secondary writing levels, the SSLN should be understood as having specifically measured the ability of pupils to write well 'across the curriculum'. That being the case, we should pay particular attention to one table - buried near the bottom of the official statistical report - which shows that a significant number of teachers do not feel fully confident in delivering this aspect of the curriculum.

Around 90 per cent of non-English teachers are confident in helping students with 'organising information', but just 70 per cent are confident in helping with the actual creation of texts or the technical aspects of writing. A prerequisite of high-quality literacy teaching across all areas of the curriculum is the provision of the time and resources needed to ensure that all teachers can feel fully able to embed literacy within their teaching and, in the absence of this, is it any wonder that literacy standards are falling short of expectations?

Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that, overall, the trend in performance levels is still a downward one – an interpretation reinforced by recent PISA results (although the real value of that information is highly questionable) and previous SSLN publications, such as the numeracy data published last year. The SSLN also confirms what anyone with an ounce of sense already knew - the gap between rich and poor pupils is not closing in any meaningful sense.

This is a particular problem for Nicola Sturgeon, who – in a moment of ill-advised hubris – stood before a room full of journalists and demanded that they, and we, judge her on her education record.

In defence of that record the government tends to point to data around the 'positive destinations' of school leavers or the record number of successful Higher passes, but neither measure is without problems.

The Times Educational Supplement (TES) for Scotland recently revealed that young people on zero-hours contracts are, for example, counted as having achieved a positive destination, despite the first minister saying that such arrangements "demean and exploit" workers, and there remains a distinct lack of clarity regarding what, exactly, constitutes a positive destination for young people. There does not appear to be a minimum number of hours per week that a young person must, for example, work or volunteer, with the government simply advising that a young person’s “main outcome” is what is recorded.

On the matter of increasing exam passes it is worth remembering that this is not, in and of itself, a sign that overall standards are improving. Though it is not correct to simply assume that pass marks have gone down across the board, there are concerns that some of the new qualifications now used in schools are as less challenging (or, to use the phrase employed by the SQA during a session which I attended a few years ago, “more accessible”) than those they replaced. 

The fundamental question to be answered, then, is simple: has Scottish education gotten worse instead of better while the SNP has been in power? The honest answer is a caveated, but fairly clear: yes.

Why has this happened?

In order to answer this question we need to recognise one key issue: education does not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum. It is therefore vital to understand that various social factors have interacted with educational ones to bring us to our current position. In these circumstances an incomplete picture is little better than no picture at all.

  • The social factors

Like every other aspect of policy in the UK, education must be viewed, at least in part, through the prism of Tory austerity that has done immense damage to millions of lives across the country. Cuts in public spending at a UK level have also, obviously, affected Scotland.

More than a quarter of Scottish kids now live in relative poverty, and 50,000 children in the country use food banks. Families everywhere are struggling to cope with precarious and low-paid employment which puts everyone, especially children, under enormous strain. Even with Scottish Government mitigation in areas like the ‘bedroom tax’, cuts to welfare and the application of punitive sanctions have done significant social damage.

There's not a state-school teacher in the country who won't be able to give you a recent example of the way in which these sorts of social pressures manifest within the four walls of the classroom. Alongside the ability to pay for private tuition, one of the great advantages for middle class children comes from the fact that they are more likely to experience calm, structured home lives and have parents around who are both willing and able to help them – this particular divide between rich and poor has widened in recent years, with those at the bottom disproportionately affected by the consequences of austerity economics.

It is not remotely credible to carry out any analysis of the problems in Scottish education while ignoring these fundamental facts.

Data from the SSLN also shows that 26 per cent of primary four pupils reported that they rarely ever or never have someone at home who reads with them. It is a heartbreaking statistic which should by all rights have been headline news, not least because any breakdown of that data would almost certainly reveal yet another gap between rich and poor. This sort of information helps to illustrate the fact that the so-called 'attainment gap' is, in fact, simply an inequality gap, and it is one that manifests from the earliest days of a child's development. By the time they start school, children from affluent families are on average 15 months ahead of their deprived peers in areas like literacy and numeracy.

It remains the case that a huge focus on, and investment in, pre-school education is absolutely vital and that the establishment of a truly 3-18 state education system, with the nursery system brought fully under state control and staffed by qualified early years professionals, could go a long way to addressing social disadvantage in early childhood.

In addition to all of the above, cultural changes have taken place that have an obvious impact in areas like literacy.

Studies in America have shown a decline in the number of children reading for pleasure and there is little reason to think that Scotland is exempt from this type of phenomenon. Indeed, the data behind the SSLN report makes for sobering reading (forgive the pun) in this area: in primary four just 44 per cent of children said that they read stories and storybooks for enjoyment “very often”; by S2, this figure (which at that stage includes the reading of novels) had dropped to 22 per cent. Other sections of the data are equally concerning - for example, 42 per cent of primary four children and 66 per cent of S2 pupils “hardly ever or never” go to a library.

People are quick to highlight the apparent correlation between declining literacy levels and factors such as the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence or the election of the SNP, but it is easy to forget that the first iPhone was introduced in 2007 and the first iPad in 2010. There's little doubt that children read more than at any point in history, but the terms on which they – and we – engage with the written word have changed markedly.

David Denby of the New Yorker has explained this rather well: "It’s very likely that teenagers, attached to screens of one sort or another, read more words than they ever have in the past. But they often read scraps, excerpts, articles, parts of articles, messages, pieces of information from everywhere and from nowhere."

Some will, no doubt, attempt to dismiss the effect of these social factors on Scottish education. Such people should be aware that, in a study of education south of the border, schools were found to be responsible for just seven per cent of the variations in the number of students gaining five good GCSEs – more than 90 per cent of the factors affecting educational attainment were outwith the control of schools.

  • The educational factors

It is well known that the number of teachers in Scotland's schools has dropped by around 4,000 in the last decade, and that nearly 2,000 support staff – librarians, science technicians, classroom assistants, admin staff etc – have been lost since 2010.

This obviously means larger class sizes and greater pressure on teachers, with the Scottish Government’s long-held goal of reducing primary classes to 18 or fewer left in tatters. In secondary schools, it also seems to have resulted in an increase in the number of 'multi-level' classes, with teachers attempting to cover two, three, or even four different levels (with potentially very different course and assessment requirements) at once. It has also become increasingly common to see individual departments replaced by faculties, a change which has been driven by financial, not educational concerns, and has had a detrimental impact overall by reducing the support available to class teachers.

Cuts to support staff are also devastating: with fewer librarians, children's right to access to access information and literature is unfairly restricted; a reduction in science technicians' hours makes it more difficult for teachers to deliver the sort of lessons that they would like to; and cuts to administrative staff mean that the staff who are left at the end of all of this face an increased bureaucratic workload.

The above factors have, without doubt, had a significant impact on Scottish education, but they are not unique to this particular country. The difference in Scotland is that these social and educational factors have interacted with the introduction of a new and – at least in some ways – radically different curriculum. Any proper analysis of Scottish education must, then, explore the impact of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

This part is a bit technical, but I think it is worth trying to explain the way in which Scotland’s new curriculum works and, hopefully, correct a few misunderstandings.

CfE is essentially based upon two fundamental concepts: ‘the four capacities’ and ‘the seven principles of curricular design’. The former paints a picture of the type of person we want young people to become: successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.


The seven principles then specify the framework within which education should be designed and delivered: challenge and enjoyment, breadth, progression, depth, personalisation and choice, coherence and relevance.

In addition to this, the various curricular (such as languages, sciences and social studies) areas are all broken down into a series of 'experiences and outcomes' (Es and Os). These requirements – presented to schools in the infamous “shiny green folders” – form the basis on which actual lessons and ongoing assessments are planned. They are broken into five broad levels as follows:


The Es and Os outline the sorts of things a student should be able to do and the way in which this would be demonstrated. Three examples of this are shown below and – if you feel like punishing yourself for some terrible transgression – the full document can be read here.

One point worth making at this stage is that, all too often, this sort of curricular documentation has been criticised by people for whom it was not designed. There is no reason to expect anyone without a background in education to find these  materials useful. There are certainly problems with the design of CfE, but the fact that journalists, bloggers and politicians cannot necessarily understand its architecture is not one of them.

That said, CfE has come in for fairly regular criticism from within the teaching profession since it first appeared. Many have argued that the four capacities and seven principles are too vague, while the Es and Os have been condemned for encouraging a box-ticking, audit-based approach (this concern was raised at the very early stages of CfE’s design).

In recent years, trapped between these two problems, teachers have spent far too much of their time “evidencing” the achievement of Es and Os, filling in absurd tracking and monitoring systems and generally drowning in a wave of bureaucratic micro-management as a system that was supposed to let educators get on with educating became driven by managerial panic. The end result of this is a profession that, rightly, often feels that it is not trusted to do its job, and one that has been weighed down by an impossible workload burden.

Teachers have also complained for years about the quality and quantity of support material coming from both Education Scotland and the SQA. Almost invariably those concerns were dismissed rather than addressed. A lack of exemplification of standards (at all levels) has also had a significant impact on teachers’ ability to properly embed CfE. It is very possible that, with hindsight, this failure to provide clear examples of students’ work at different levels will be seen as the single greatest failure in the implementation of CfE – indeed, one wonders how much of the seemingly endless (and endlessly changing) documentation associated with the new curriculum could have been replaced by the timeous provision of high-quality exemplification material.

In the case of new National and Higher courses, schools and students were once again expected to purchase example exam materials from parasitic publishing companies like Leckie & Leckie and Hodder Gibson, thus reinforcing the gap between rich and poor within the education system. This is made particularly galling by the fact that such resources are only of any value because of the failure of official bodies to provide the materials that are needed and, in doing so, ensure equitable access for all.

There is another - generally overlooked - aspect of CfE that must be properly understood if we are to build a complete picture of the challenges facing Scottish education. Put simply, the new curriculum makes enormous demands of teachers in comparison to the system it replaced. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, and teachers have done their best to meet these challenges, but to do so while also coping with the social and educational factors explored above has proven to be an impossible task.

In truth, it was always going to be and it's a miracle that the situation in Scottish education isn't significantly worse. Were it not for the tireless work of the teaching profession, which has bailed out both the government and official agencies again and again, there is no knowing how bad things could have been.

How can we make things better?

The first step is to just calm down, stop and think things through - politicised hysteria is of no help to anyone.

It was no surprise to see the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association recently pass a motion calling for a "moratorium" on changes to education policy. Scotland's educators have spent most of the last decade trying to cope with near-constant changes – many of them rushed or based on little if any real evidence - to the systems and structures within which they operate, a situation which is completely unsustainable. There are real concerns that the system simply cannot cope with any further changes, good or bad, at this point. Teachers are right: a little bit of stability is certainly needed.

Indeed, a few years of calm would provide the space for a key reform of CfE - the removal of the Es and Os and the redesign of some of the core documentation. Professor Mark Priestley of the University of Stirling has already argued for this, and one of the people heavily involved in the original development of CfE has told me that they believe it would be a hugely positive step. Such a shift would only be of value if done properly, and this time there will be no second chances, so the whole process would take at least a couple of years to get right.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is to ensure that, in the pursuit of improvements, we are focused on the right areas. This is why an understanding of the various factors at play in Scottish education is so important. All governments are guilty, by degrees, of looking in the wrong place for answers but, when it comes to education, this government seems to fall into that trap with alarming regularity.

One important step would be to ditch the headline-grabbing, politically-expedient gimmicks that politicians are so attracted to. In the case of the SNP, this means the imposition of national standardised testing and a pointless governance “review” where the destination - greater centralisation of power through the creation of education regions, and the removal of an as-yet-unspecified list of education powers from local authorities – is already set.

Both of these initiatives will fritter away millions of pounds while acting as little more than an unwelcome distraction. They are about meeting the needs of politicians, not pupils, and should be abandoned immediately.

Even the much-heralded Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) is a questionable investment, especially when viewed in the context of ongoing cuts to council budgets. In England, where a similar system is already in place, recent research showed that around a third of schools used this “extra” funding to plug holes in their budgets and there are already signs that the same will happen in Scotland - indeed, the government's own website offers "additional staffing" as the first example of a potential use for the cash.

It is also worth noting at this point that the total being spent on this funding would be enough to pay the salaries of between 3,500 and 4,500 teachers, thus replacing those lost since the SNP first took office. It is, as ever, merely a question of priorities.

The SNP worked extremely hard to convince the public that the massive cut to Local Government (shown below) is OK because PEF - which distributes around £120m to Scottish schools based on the number of pupils in receipt of free school meals - also counts as education funding. It was, in fairness, a valiant effort but the idea that huge reductions in the money transferred to councils will have no deleterious impact upon the delivery of education services is simply nonsense.

At the end of the day, if we are serious about improving Scottish education then we must accept certain things. Firstly, we need to be clear that any attempt to address educational problems without tackling the consequences of deep-seated social inequality is doomed to complete - and familiar - failure.

The other key point to understand is that improving the quality of teaching taking place in classrooms is the key to improving the system overall. Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education, has explored this second issue in detail: “The educational achievement of a country’s population is a key determinant of economic growth, and so improving educational attainment is an urgent priority for all countries. A number of ways that this might be done have been attempted, including changes to the structure of schooling, to the governance of schools, to the curriculum, and an increased role for digital technology. While each of these approaches has produced some successes, the net impact at system level has been close to, if not actually, zero.

“The only thing that really matters,” he argues, “is the quality of the teacher.”

It is true that improving the status of teaching would help here, with the ultimate goal being to attract the very best people into the teaching profession. Even if this happened tomorrow, however, the policy would take decades to bear fruit. Our focus, therefore, should be on ensuring that existing teachers are able to do their jobs properly and to continuously improve as professionals.

How do we achieve that? First and foremost, it is perfectly clear that the Scottish education system needs to at least replace the teaching and non-teaching staff lost over the last decade. Support from “non-teaching” staff is absolutely vital, both directly and indirectly, to the quality of educational experience that teachers can provide for their pupils.

We should also aim to reduce teacher's class-contact time, bringing Scotland down to the OECD average in this area. Though this may sound counter-intuitive, quality education depends upon teachers having sufficient time away from their classes to plan lessons, prepare assessments, mark and moderate students’ work, collaborate with colleagues and develop their own professional abilities.

The government should also commit to a significant investment in continuing professional development for teachers, which is an area that many within the profession feel has been badly neglected in recent years. Educators talk of finding it increasingly difficult to gain authorisation for development activities due to problems with both funding and staffing, a situation which has let down the teaching profession and, consequently, Scotland’s children.

Will any of this happen?

I very much doubt it.

In appointing John Swinney as education secretary, the first minister effectively signalled her intention to press ahead with her chosen reforms no matter what. That her deputy now looks entirely out of his depth is unlikely to change her plans, especially as she continues to come under pressure from the Ruth Davidson Against A Second Referendum party and commentators determined to see Scotland replicate the mistakes being made in other countries.

But it doesn't need to be this way. There is, if the SNP is willing to look for it, plenty of support in the Scottish Parliament for genuinely progressive education policy, as well as a teaching profession that is utterly dedicated to delivering the education that our young people deserve.

We can do so much better than this but only if the first minister is willing to do something genuinely difficult: admit that she has got it wrong so far and change course. If this happens I will be first in line to congratulate her for her courage.

Picture courtesy of First Minister of Scotland

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