Last week, education became the political football of choice in Scotland. This had been on the cards for a while, before two things happened in quick succession: on Tuesday, the disappointing results of the final Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) were published; and on Wednesday, a dozen teachers appeared at the Scottish Parliament to make some eye-opening revelations about the demands of their jobs.
This was seized upon by the government’s opponents and by newspapers. The Daily Express described Scottish education as a scene of “abject failure” while the Daily Mail, with its usual restraint, wrote the headline: “Generation’s life chances sacrificed on altar of independence.”
Meanwhile, teachers were asked by MSPs what might put people off joining or staying with the profession. Interestingly – and this is something I have heard regularly from teachers in recent times – some viewed negative media coverage as a big deterrent. Certainly, the sort of hyperbole noted above gives a dispiriting and often misleading sense that Scottish education is an unmitigated disaster. Even so, we should not dismiss the evidence that emerged last week.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and education secretary John Swinney seemed to recognise as much. On the 2016 SSLN, Sturgeon said she was “not going to try in any way to diminish the significance of those findings”, the most striking of which was that 49 per cent of S2s were doing well or better in writing, down from 64 per cent in 2012.
That same day in Cumbernauld, Professor Graham Donaldson was addressing the annual conference of the Catholic Headteachers’ Association of Scotland. One of the big hitters in Scottish education – a former senior chief inspector and author of the landmark 2011 report on teacher education – he was his normal upbeat self, highlighting many aspects of Scottish education that he said were admired across the world.
'Perplexed' by data
But Donaldson admitted that he was “perplexed” by the SSLN data and Scotland’s similarly underwhelming performance in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment. According to the international consensus on what works in education, he said, Scotland seemed to be doing just about everything right; yet clearly, in practice, all was not well.
Some, of course, question the validity of Pisa, and Donaldson warned against a one-dimensional view of success: he speculated, for example, that Curriculum for Excellence might be one factor behind falling youth crime statistics.
But let’s not downplay the testimony of the teachers in Parliament: the primary head quitting because the workload has left her “utterly exhausted”; the 48-year-old newly qualified computing teacher shocked that she often doesn’t have time to go to the toilet; the faculty head who said that, 15 years after its conception, teachers are still struggling to explain what Curriculum for Excellence is.
There was, however, a more uplifting event at the Scottish Parliament – please look up the clip of Jemma Skelding, the 12-year-old profoundly deaf pupil from Falkirk High School. Using British Sign Language, she became the youngest person ever to lead the weekly Time for Reflection, an honour usually given to religious representatives.
With that in mind, I can’t finish off any more eloquently than this tweet by Kenny Pieper, an English teacher and Tes Scotland columnist: “Politicians writing off a generation of Scottish kids, come into my school. Please. Meet our smart, polite, brilliant young people.”