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Education in Scotland heads backwards

WHEN MY late wife graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1973 with a first class honours degree in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy – their name for physics – she was one of three students in her class who were awarded firsts that year, and all three had come from normal Scottish country high schools, then known as ‘comprehensives’.

 

This didn’t seem too surprising to me at the time. I remember that I used to think that private schools, at least for those of us in rural areas, were really for the kids who needed a bit more help to achieve their potential, but that if you were reasonably bright, the local high school was just fine.

 

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” said LP Hartley and looking back the forty-odd years, I’m forced to agree.

 

When I recently attended an award ceremony for scientific achievement among Scottish school pupils I was struck by the fact that all the many prizewinners, every single one of them, were from private schools.

 

As the independent sector in Scotland only educates 4.3 per cent of Scottish students it is difficult to believe that all the talented young scientists are attending only them, and that the less able students are all at state schools. Clearly either the private schools have got a lot better, or the state schools have got worse – or at least are not keeping up.

 

And that does seem to be the case. According to a special OECD report in 2015, the proportion of pupils performing well or very well in literacy and numeracy in Scottish schools has declined since 2011 in testing at P4, P7, and S2 stages, and the biggest decrease has been amongst the most deprived students. They particularly observed the

“declining relative and absolute achievement levels in mathematics” and that over the last dozen years Scotland had dropped from being a ‘leading achiever’ to, these days, being an average performer.

 

And we have to question the performance of the Scottish Government over this time. At the 2007 Scottish election the SNP pledged to reduce class sizes and maintain teacher numbers, but since then class sizes have risen, and there are 4000 fewer teachers – a loss of around eight per cent.

 

Between 2010 and 2013, at a time when school spending in England rose in real terms by three per cent, in Scotland spending fell in real terms by five per cent – and the man responsible for that shortfall was John Swinney, now charged with fixing our education system.

 

Earlier this year Sir Tom Hunter made a documentary for BBC Scotland: ‘Educating Sir
Tom’ where he contrasted the recently improved performance of schools in England with Scotland, drawing particular attention to the development of self-governing Academies, and the dramatic improvement in London schools attributed to their adoption of the ‘Teach First’ programme which recruits high quality graduates directly into teaching, particularly targeting those qualified in the areas of mathematics, science and technology.

 

In reply Nicola Sturgeon said “if something can be proven to work we should try it”, but so far she has been unwilling to take on the Scottish teaching unions who oppose these developments.

 

In their election pledge this year the SNP once again promised to prioritise education and spend an additional £750m over the next five years.

 

But given that they have fallen so far short of their 2007 pledges, what confidence can we now have that Scotland can once again produce the best young science students from our state schools?

 

Their report card should conclude ‘could do better’. Much better. ■

 

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