Denial and deflection highlight poverty of success in education
By Graham Grant
YOU might dimly recall Nicola Sturgeon’s determination to ‘make sure our schools are once again among the best in the world’.
That was nearly four years ago, and since then she has been a little quieter on the matter, focusing instead on Brexit, and independence.
The reason for that is simple: in taking on entrenched educational inequality, the First Minister set the bar very high for a policy triumph.
She fell short because the ambition of her goal far outstripped the ambition of the plan intended to achieve it – which is failing and in disarray.
Against this backdrop came an extraordinary online debate, sparked by a Lib Dem MP’s claim that only four per cent of young people in the Govan area of Glasgow go to university.
On the BBC’s Question Time, Jo Swinson, the favourite to become her party’s new leader, and MP for East Dunbartonshire, said this contrasted with figures as high as 80 per cent in parts of her own constituency.
Cue much unbridled outrage, including a broadside from broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, an independence supporter, who warned: ‘If Jo Swinson plans more high octane attacks on Nicola Sturgeon, good luck.
‘SNP isn’t perfect. But politicians in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’
Miss Sturgeon, the MSP for Glasgow Southside, which covers the Govan area, said Miss Swinson was ‘wrong about the aspiration and achievements of young people’.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf weighed in: ‘Lots of folk on here talking about what young people from Govan should be thinking. Not a single piece I’ve read so far actually speaks to someone from Govan. Tells you everything you need to know sadly.’
Except it doesn’t: what we really need to know is that despite Nationalist claims that Miss Swinson was playing fast and loose with the official statistics, she wasn’t – she was using the Scottish Government’s own figures.
In a statement produced after the show, the SNP said it ‘had called on Jo Swinson to issue a full retraction for using fake figures’.
It pointed to the Glasgow City Council-produced school leaver destination data which showed that 22.8 per cent of students at Govan High School went on to higher education and 94 per cent continued to ‘positive destinations’, which also included further education and employment.
Of course, Govan High School isn’t Govan – while ‘positive destinations’ is a nebulous category which includes zero-hour contracts.
In the view of some of the wild-eyed acolytes of Miss Sturgeon on social media, the statistical dispute was clearly all part of a despicable Unionist smear plot – probably co-ordinated by MI5.
But it was also a telling row because it shows the key problem the SNP faces: how can it possibly hope to eliminate – or even begin to close – the ‘attainment gap’ in Scottish education, if it pretends to ignore its existence?
The postcode lottery which compels parents to buy expensive properties in the catchment areas of the best-performing state schools has been around for decades – and after 20 years devolution has done nothing to tackle it.
The SNP overlooked the gap for seven years before Miss Sturgeon prioritised it after taking over from Alex Salmond in 2014, and the following year she said: ‘If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of your people, then what are you prepared to?’
Her questionable syntax aside, this was a reasonable question, and yet the strategy she adopted was heavily predicated on a measure that had been introduced already, even if it was implemented in a ham-fisted manner: the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).
We were told this would help to challenge inequalities and close the attainment gap – now re-branded the ‘poverty-related attainment gap’: if it’s caused by poverty, then the Scottish Government can’t be entirely to blame, as poverty is the domain of the Tories – and, as we know, Miss Sturgeon will take no lessons from the Tories, or indeed anyone else.
This isn’t quite the case, either: ministers in Scotland have control of key elements of the tax and benefits system (even if Auditor General Caroline Gardner has warned there is a ‘significant risk’ the Scottish Government will fail to deliver billions of pounds of the devolved benefits on time).
It’s also not clear that poverty is the sole factor behind the gap, which even Miss Sturgeon’s former HM Chief Inspector of Education – now-retired Dr Bill Maxwell – said would take more than a decade to close.
A 2014 Audit Scotland report found that ‘some schools had achieved better attainment results than their levels of deprivation would indicate, suggesting that the gap between the lowest and highest performing schools cannot be wholly attributed to different levels of deprivation’.
In reality, the CfE has led to secondary school pupils studying fewer subjects – five or six rather than eight: a brutal rationing that will narrow the horizons of thousands of pupils across Scotland.
Miss Sturgeon’s key initiative was the £120million Pupil Equity Fund, which Education Secretary John Swinney claimed had ‘unleashed a creativity and innovation in our schools which is absolutely breath-taking’.
But there is a lack of data over where the money has gone, and critics believe some of it has been used to make up for budget cuts and to supplement teachers’ wages.
One in five eligible schools has stopped, or plans to stop, PEF interventions, with the EIS teaching union blaming the high level of paperwork involved, which outweighed the benefits of the relatively ‘small’ amounts provided.
For their part, teachers managed to wring a huge 13.5 per cent pay hike out of the SNP after threatening strike action, and at the EIS conference later this week the union’s delegates will call for a reduction in class contact time – actual teaching – from 22.5 per week to 17.5 hours, to free them up for marking and preparing lessons.
But if you’re looking for evidence of the success (or otherwise) of SNP education ‘reforms’, try the Programme for International Student Assessment, which shows Scots pupils lagged behind peers in South Korea, Vietnam and ex-Soviet bloc countries Estonia and Slovenia on key skills – hardly a justification for teachers spending less time at the chalkface.
It’s easy to see why the SNP is locked in denial, and why demonising Miss Swinson is a more attractive proposition than accepting she was right.
But it should be a source of continuing shame for Miss Sturgeon that the only tactic she has left to deploy in her personal campaign to drive up classroom standards is a desperate act of deflection that puts the narrow political interests of her party ahead of the life chances of an entire generation of young Scots.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on June 4, 2019.