While teachers, parents and children crowd the streets to protest about the state of Scottish education there is evidence of complacency at the top towards rising standards in schools. It is of some interest that a shift has taken place in the way politicians respond to standards in education in Scotland. The Government is trying to talk up the success of Scottish education while Labour is now adopting a more critical line.
This contrasts with the period towards the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s when ministers played down the work of schools while the opposition sought to bolster education's successes. During this time the Tories attempted to use the debate over standards of achievement as a way of promoting the demise of comprehensive schooling through opting out of local authority control and other elements of the consumerist agenda. Their repertoire included talk of "falling standards", "incompetent teachers" and the need for "a bloody revolution".
The response from many educationists was to highlight a rise in standards: "more and more pupils are gaining more and more awards in more and more subjects". These days ministers are now tied to promoting rising standards.
The Conservatives' manifesto for the unitary authorities claimed "standards in schools are rising . . . More qualifications are being obtained than ever before". In contrast, Labour in Scotland now claims that schools need to place improved standards at the top of the education agenda.
It is quite clear that in the period between 1983 and 1993 Scottish schools have been very successful in certificating pupils. In 1983-84, one in four pupils left school with no SCE qualifications compared with one in ten in 1993-94. In all of the figures there has been a steady increase over the period in question.
However, there is now evidence that the figures have flattened out over the past three years. Between 1984 and 1993, the percentage of pupils who left school at the minimum leaving age fell from 49 per cent to 30 per cent and has now slightly increased. The figures for those leaving school with Standard grades between levels 4 and 7 have levelled off. The percentage of those leaving school with no qualifications has stuck around 10 per cent in two of the past three years.
In September 1993, Scottish Office statistics showed marginal increases in class sizes in all stages of secondary schools. Other signs of complacency include the lack of response to the decline in interest and participation in school boards. In 1990, 61 per cent of secondary school boards had a contested election while in 1994 only 20 per cent were contested. The number of boards has declined in all sectors.
The Government has to shoulder some of the responsibility for this complacency within the education service. At a national level there has been little consideration of how to promote more effective schooling in areas faced with the problems of deprivation. For too long education authorities and schools have been left to get on with their work without central guidance, advice or funding. This is part of the reason why the figures have levelled off as schools have done all they can to offer certification to all.
Nationally there has been little research into the problems of working with disaffected young people and secondary schools in particular have been left to fail them. There has been no sign of Government money to look at the ways that primary schools are able to meet the needs of learners in deprived areas. In many places secondary schools merely provide a measure of failure for such children.
The collusion of adolescent boys in their failure has been a feature of academic works for 20 years. Yet where are the national studies in Scotland tackling this problem?
The political parties must now begin to take standards seriously. Labour has come out strongly with promotion of a climate of achievement in the recent policy document Every Child Is Special, which sets the raising of standards as a major target for all sectors of the education service. In a matter of days, following speculation in the media about the document, the Education Minister was announcing a task force on improving standards.
Last year the Tories' local government manifesto spoke of "Conservative education policies which have increased opportunities and driven up standards". This claim may yet be the subject of examination by the task force.
With targets now being set nationally for the year 2000 and Labour aiming to set targets for schools and pupils, there is a need for further research and action at all levels in the education service into why the rise in standards has stopped.
David Watt is chairperson of the Socialist Education Association in Scotland.