Sturgeon fails in ‘defining mission’ to close education attainment gap

Scotland’s first minister had said improving standards for disadvantaged pupils was issue she should be judged on:

– The Times, Tuesday 27th April 2021

Nicola Sturgeon made improving Scottish education the “defining mission” of her government — and told voters that narrowing the attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils was the issue she wanted to be judged on. “I’ve put my own neck on the line,” the first minister assured her Scottish National party in 2015. But a full parliamentary term later, Sturgeon may be hoping that voters do not take her too literally when they cast their ballots in Scottish parliamentary elections on May 6. “The poverty-related attainment gap remains wide,” independent watchdog Audit Scotland concluded in a report last month. “Progress on closing the gap has been limited and falls short of the Scottish government’s aims.”

It is a verdict that offers ammunition to critics of the SNP’s record after 14 years in control of the devolved government in Edinburgh. Failings on education are potentially particularly damaging in Scotland, which has traditionally prided itself on a strong and open school system, through which a diligent “lad o’ pairts” could rise from humble circumstances to social and economic success. Sturgeon insists Scotland’s state school system remains strong and that there are signs poorer pupils are performing better than previously.

Audit Scotland did report some improvement in attainment by pupils from the most deprived areas. But the SNP government has itself made it much harder for voters to judge its record on education. In 2017, it scrapped a longstanding survey of literacy and numeracy that had shown declines in both, as well as some widening of the deprivation-related attainment gap. Under Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond, the SNP had in 2010 already withdrawn Scotland from two international surveys of attainment in maths, science and literacy known as Timss and Pirls.

The withdrawal made systematic international comparison of Scottish schools’ performance almost impossible, said Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh university. “Scotland is now one of the worst-served education systems in the developed world for the quality of its statistical data,” said Paterson, a critic of Scotland’s controversial decade-old Curriculum for Excellence. “That’s vandalism it seems to me.” Nor can the SNP take much comfort from the sole major international survey Scotland still participates in, the three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment. Over the past two decades, Scotland has slipped down the Pisa rankings towards mediocrity. In the rankings published in 2016, Scotland scored below England for English, maths and science.

“Such evidence as there is suggests that relative to quite a lot of countries, standards in Scotland have been declining,” said Keir Bloomer, one of the original architects of Curriculum for Excellence and now chair of an independent group of education experts pushing for schools reform. Scotland now ranks alongside or below much less wealthy nations, Bloomer added. “That is really not good.”

The most recent Pisa results in 2019 suggested that progress in narrowing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils had actually slowed since Sturgeon made it her core mission. Pro-union opposition parties hope discontent at what Scottish Conservative party leader Douglas Ross calls 14 years of education failure will help stop the SNP — which since 2016 has run a minority government — from securing a majority in the parliament at Holyrood on May 6. Any voter backlash against the SNP could have implications for the UK’s constitutional future, since the party hopes to use a parliamentary majority as a platform to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

But while a Scottish government survey published last year found falling public satisfaction with schools, polls suggest the SNP is on track for a landslide on May 6 and could still secure a majority in its own right — a remarkable feat in a largely proportionally representative parliament. The SNP government insists the gap in attainment between the most and least disadvantaged pupils has narrowed “on most indicators”, citing in particular convergence in the proportion that pass at least one secondary school qualification.

To encourage new approaches to improving attainment, the government has also started giving headteachers extra funding based on how many disadvantaged pupils attend their school. But in a humiliating U-turn in 2018, John Swinney, the education secretary, was forced to abandon flagship education legislation intended to give schools more autonomy because of opposition from councils, teachers and rival political parties.

Swinney has also suffered high-profile reverses during the coronavirus pandemic, most notably in August when he was forced to upgrade the results of nearly 75,000 secondary pupils after complaints that the way in which the Scottish Qualifications Authority altered their teacher-assessed grades was unfair. Swinney then announced plans to go ahead with 2021’s flagship Higher exams, usually taken in the final years of secondary school, only to cancel them in December.

In a sign of the breadth of concern about the school system, all parties in the Scottish parliament except the SNP in February backed a motion calling for “substantial reform” of the qualifications authority and of Education Scotland, the agency responsible for reviewing schools and promoting improvement. “There is compelling evidence that neither body is fit for purpose and that they have lost the confidence of teachers, pupils and parents,” the parliament said.

When the pandemic ebbs, attention is likely to return to the Curriculum for Excellence, which was intended to encourage more creative, collaborative and cross-disciplinary learning. Critics say it has led to narrower subject choices and inadequate stress on fundamental knowledge in science subjects or familiarity with established classics in English.

The Scottish government insists that ranking acquisition of “skills and attributes” alongside “knowledge” as the core purpose of the curriculum does not imply any trade-off. “Accumulation of knowledge is threaded throughout Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes,” it said.

But Bloomer said implementation of the curriculum had left its underlying philosophy unclear. “What we do know is that the place of knowledge in the curriculum has been considerably devalued,” he said. “The result of that is that the learning is less thorough than it has been in the past.”