Falling numeracy standards in Scotland have been branded a “disgrace” after the publication of national statistics today.
The proportion of P4 pupils – who are at the half-way point of primary school – performing well or very well in numeracy dropped again in 2015, after the previous round of figures (2013) also showed a fall.
He has made closing the attainment gap between wealthy and poor children his priority, but is confronted with a large divide in numeracy performance between pupils from the most and least deprived areas that has so far proven resistant to various government initiatives.
However, declining numeracy performance at P7 – the last year of primary school – has stabilised since the last survey, and a small fall in performance in the second year of secondary school has been written off by SSLN statisticians as negligible.
The P4 figures are easily the most concerning: 76 per cent of children were performing well or very well in 2011, but in 2013 that had fallen to 69 per cent. Now the new figures show another fall, down to 66 per cent.
And the gap between the performance of wealthy and poor children grows as they get older. At P4, 55 per cent of the most deprived children do well or very well, against 76 per cent of the least deprived. By S2, the least deprived children are more than twice as likely to perform at that level (53 per cent, compared with 25 per cent of the most deprived).
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray described the findings as a “disgrace” and criticised the SNP government for “slashing investment in education”.
“No wonder the SNP hid these figures until after the [Scottish parliamentary] election,” he said. “They lay bare their failure on education.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, Scotland's largest teaching union, said the survey showed that Scotland's pupils continued to perform well in numeracy overall, with most pupils at or above the appropriate levels for their stage.
But he added: "It is significant to note that where there has been a dip, it has occurred primarily in pupils from the most deprived backgrounds – underlining the fact that austerity-driven cuts, which have deepened the levels of child poverty in Scotland, have created even greater barriers to educational achievement for too many of our young people."
Mr Swinney, who is also deputy to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, admitted there was “much to do” but argued that the full impact of several measures introduced by the government would not have been seen in the 2015 statistics.
Chief among these, he said, was the National Improvement Framework, including the controversial introduction of standardised national assessments from 2016-17 to provide “detailed information to teachers on every child to show what is working and what needs attention”.
In Mr Swinney’s first few weeks in the job, he has also announced plans to tackle teacher workload, while Ms Sturgeon last week revealed that Scotland would soon host a major summit bringing together some of the world’s foremost experts on school education.
The SSLN monitors national performance in literacy and numeracy in alternate years – last year’s edition raised concerns about declining literacy standards – at P4, P7 and S2, with about 10,500 pupils and 2,200 schools taking part in 2015.