‘The politicians aren’t listening to us,’ an exasperated teacher tells me by phone. ‘There’s nothing left for us to do but get on with it.’ The despair felt by Scottish teachers is a notable shift from the anger I encountered in the staffroom when I trained among them five years ago.
That was the year of the ‘PISA shock’, 2015, when Scotland performed abysmally in reading, maths, and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Distinguished education professors at top Scottish universities were left reeling. One such academic suggested that the Scottish government had five years to fix the problem. In response, John Swinney, the SNP’s education secretary, promised to implement ‘radical’ and ‘controversial’ reforms. He might have also promised to make matters worse, since that’s what he’s done.
In 2019-2020, the proportion of pupils passing three or more Highers was 43 per cent, lower than any year from 2015 onwards. Audit Scotland, an independent watchdog, concludes that the attainment gap between rich and poor ‘remains wide’ and that progress ‘falls short of the Scottish government’s aims’. Scottish children from poor backgrounds remain significantly less likely than their English counterparts to go to university.
Yet in 2019 Swinney tweeted that the most recent PISA figures (showing a slight ascent from the depths to which literacy had sunk) ‘corroborates what we see elsewhere — improving schools and a closing of the attainment gap’. But where exactly do we see this? Look closely at the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, the shoogly peg on which the Scottish government hangs such claims, and you quickly find that it is not fit for purpose. For instance, the government reported that in 2019 the highest ever percentage of school leavers (26 per cent) from the most-deprived quintile of areas were going on to university. However, elsewhere the government’s own research indicates that as many as 90 per cent of those on low incomes actually live outside the ‘most deprived’ areas.
‘About half of the decrease in the gap (2+1.5 out of 7) is likely to have been due either to non-disadvantaged people living in deprived areas, or to the stagnation of entry from non-deprived areas,’ writes Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Paterson goes on to say that the government’s decision to base its policy conclusions on these ‘sleights of hand seems distinctly dubious’.
Distinct dubiety is a hallmark of this government’s education policy. From the beginning, standards have been adapted to fit the curriculum, and not (as it should be) the other way round. For example, when Curriculum for Excellence was introduced in 2010 under Alex Salmond, the SNP withdrew Scotland from two major international maths, science, and literacy surveys: Timss and Pirls. Then, in 2017, the government decided to withdraw from another tried and tested literacy and numeracy survey.
The SNP’s preferred metric is continuous assessment, which they largely make up as they go along. Standard Grades and Intermediates have been replaced with ‘National 4’ and ‘National 5’ and the Scottish Highers have been hollowed out, changing in all but name. To put it mildly, the results fail to impress. Paterson explains that not only do the latest reports indicate that ‘pass rates in the Higher and National 5 assessments have been falling’, but ‘in mathematics, too many students’ numeracy was weak and too many struggled with algebra. In social subjects and in English there was a tendency to mistake opinions for facts, to make sweeping generalisations, and to answer exam questions with regurgitated model essays that had been memorised’.
It was hardly surprising that CfE — dreadful at the best of times — was unable to withstand the pressures of the pandemic. Last summer, Swinney was forced to upgrade some 75,000 high school students’ exam results after the outcry over the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to downgrade pupils' marks. Cruelly and unusually, teachers had been appointed arbiters of children’s futures, and were instructed to rank order their pupils. Which created entirely foreseeable problems.
Now it would seem that ‘assessment’ is virtually the only form of education that Scottish pupils are guaranteed to get. After Easter, pupils were brought back to the classroom to face a continuous diet of assessments, since the official end-of-year exams have yet again been cancelled. What’s the difference between an ‘assessment’ and an ‘exam’? ‘You tell me,’ one teacher says.
Teachers are deeply concerned about the mental health of pupils under this stress. There are huge holes in pupils’ learning due to the pandemic, but the time away has also exposed the weakness of a system based on teaching children to parrot answers for a test. Many pupils have not been taught how to think, let alone have any general knowledge on which to draw. And while some private schools were able to set up preliminary exams over Zoom with invigilators, pupils at state schools and from poorer backgrounds (or without the same parental support) have had no such advantage.
Meanwhile, teachers are struggling to keep up with the Scottish Qualifications Authority's continual changes to its 2020-2021 'alternative certification model'. As indicated on the SQA's website, the latest 'update' was announced on April 13, maddeningly close to the June 25 deadline to submit materials (though that deadline is also an 'update').
Perhaps most scandalous of all is Swinney’s decision not to release the findings of the OECD’s report on Curriculum for Excellence until after the May election. He says this is on account of ‘confidentiality rules’. Who does he think he’s kidding? Education is fully devolved. Scotland’s pupils aren’t guinea pigs. Scotland’s teachers aren’t load-carrying mules. Scotland’s public isn’t stupid. Those responsible for this mess ought to answer for it at the ballot box.