I have a bugbear, and it’s the “positive destinations” statistics trotted out by the Scottish government every time its record on education is questioned.
My colleague Henry Hepburn and I have just recorded a podcast with education secretary John Swinney in which we touched on everything from the latter's new year’s resolution to run three times a week, to the huge criticism that Scottish education has come in for in recent times – not least in the wake of last month’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results.
Inevitably, when Mr Swinney was seeking to defend Scottish education, he referenced the positive destinations figures – these tend to be the go-to statistics for the Scottish government when under fire, and it’s easy to see why, given the latest ones purport to show just over 93 per cent of 2017-18’s cohort of school leavers being in employment, education or training nine months after leaving school.
But these statistics are not rigorous enough to be held up as one of the key reasons why we should feel confident that our education system is performing well.
There are good, strong arguments that can be made in favour of Scottish education; education directors' body ADES highlighted some of them recently, such as the huge fall in exclusions and the big rise in the proportion of students achieving five or more Highers by the end of S5. But I think these figures are a cop-out, and I’ll explain why.
The latest positive destinations figures were published in June last year and show that 93.2 per cent of all 2017-18 school leavers were in a positive destination nine months after leaving school – this was higher than the proportion in 2016-17 (92.9 per cent) and the highest since 2009-10.
So what is a positive destination? The Scottish government says: “School leavers who are engaged in higher education, further education, training, voluntary work, employment or activity agreements are classified as having a 'positive destination'.”
Background: ‘More school leavers in work, education and training’
How positive is 'positive'? Zero-hours jobs count towards school-leaver destination stats
The vast majority, though, fall into one of three categories: they are either in higher education (39 per cent), employment (28.3 per cent) or further education (22.7 per cent).
What are 'positive destinations'?
The proportion classed as being employed has risen over the years – it used to be that a higher proportion of school leavers went on to college, but now more go into work, with the proportion classed as being employed rising by 4.9 percentage points from 2009-10 to 2017-18.
But what kind of work are these young people engaged in? The answer to that is we don’t know and apparently we don’t care because “all types of employment” count. There is no breakdown by type of job – we don’t even know if the employment they are engaged in is full-time or part-time.
To be classed as employed, these school leavers simply have to “consider themselves to be employed and in receipt of payment from their employers”.
Ultimately, these former pupils could be working in zero-hours contracts – which first minister Nicola Sturgeon herself has said “demean and exploit” workers – yet they would be classed as a success story.
Tes Scotland first highlighted this issue back in 2016 and nothing has changed since then. Raising it with Mr Swinney last week, he said he was “happy to explore if there was more detail that could be put into [the figures]” – but he also argued that they were “a good indicator of what young people have been equipped for as a consequence of their school education”.
Given that this issue has been on the horizon for a few years now, it seems unlikely change will be forthcoming soon.
The problem is that on the surface these figures paint a picture of success and continuous improvement in Scottish education; whether or not that's real apparently doesn’t matter.
Emma Seith is a reporter at Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith