The figures, John Swinney said, made for “uncomfortable reading”. That is how the SNP's Education Secretary last week described Scotland’s worst ever set of results in the ‘PISA’ ranking – the world’s most respected international league table of educational standards. Uncomfortable? Unacceptable, more like, just like those released this week relating to specific measures about the Curriculum for Excellence.
The figures don’t lie. In 2000, Scotland was well up the table of OECD nations, performing above average in all three key measurements of maths, science and reading. Now, we are below average in all three. It is a damning indictment of what has passed for SNP schools policy this last decade. It confirms what many teachers have been telling the Scottish Government for a long time; namely, that the delivery of the much-vaunted Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland’s flagship education reform under this government, is a complete mess.
Parents don’t have a clue what it means in practice. Like teachers, they fully approve of the central principle of CfE which is to ensure children understand why they are learning something as well as what they are learning, but they can't make head nor tail of the guidance. Schools are overwhelmed by 20,000 pages of guidance. And too many pupils simply aren’t getting the grounding the key subject areas that will give them the skills to get on in life.
When even the architect of this reform says its implementation has made things worse, we should sit up and listen. Fixing this quickly is now the most pressing policy issue in Scotland – and it needs doing now, before another generation is let down.
So what does the Scottish Government need to do? Three key issues stand out and will show whether or not this SNP Government has what it takes to deliver.
First, Ministers needs to get a grip of the education chiefs who are most to blame for this crisis. Sitting above schools, a series of quangos have been charged by Ministers to run school policy these last few years, most prominently Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Agency. Even as the bad results have come in, they still insist they just need more time to “embed” Curriculum for Excellence or “recalibrate” the exam system.
But almost every teacher in the land is telling these agencies that they have failed to deliver a coherent, intelligible and workable set of guidance that provides clarity to the delivery of the curriculum and its qualifications. Those responsible should be held accountable for their mistakes.
To give one example of the problem, Education Scotland - which runs education policy - is also in charge of inspecting our schools. In other words, the people in charge of measuring standards in your local school, are judge and jury at the same time. Recently, I asked whether there were any other examples of this practice elsewhere in the world. Education Scotland was struggling to find examples. It has to end.
And to give another: this agency did not collect the necessary key data when Curriculum for Excellence began, meaning we have no detailed analysis of where problems lie. We have no dedicated education research body as there is in so many other countries. Consequently, the Scottish Conservatives are now calling on the SNP to carry out an independent evaluation of CfE.
At the same time, because Mr Swinney simply doesn’t have the necessary data to drill down on which schools are having problems, he should insist that the relevant data is collected and he should re-enter Scotland into the other international measurements from which one of his predecessors withdrew Scottish schools.
Secondly, we need our schools to focus on the basics of literacy and numeracy. It wasn’t just last week’s figures which fired a warning shot – the recent Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy did so as well. There is a lesson here and it comes from a couple of schools I have visited recently which are dealing with some of our most disadvantaged pupils. So worried were they about consistently poor results that they ditched all the Curriculum for Excellence guidance and returned to what they described as “old fashioned methods” which taught phonetic spelling and traditional methods of learning arithmetic. They didn’t tell their local authority for fear of upsetting the establishment but their results improved, markedly. It’s a similar story at teacher training college. Probationers are asking if they can spend more time on learning how to teach literacy and numeracy rather than spending hours on doing less essential things.
If the greatest gift we give any child is the ability to read, write and count it is therefore vital to ensure that all teachers are wholly confident in teaching these basic skills. If we do not, all other learning becomes much more difficult. Likewise, we should bin the idea that young people should be expected to find out things most things on their own. It should once again become fashionable to teach them basic facts and the core knowledge that gives young people the ability to get on in the world. Learning skills and knowledge should be part and parcel of the same experience but the Curriculum for Excellence has not had that balance.
And finally, it is time to set our schools free. The Scottish Government is about to publish a governance review of schools which could hardly be more important. It is time to shake things up. Head-teachers should be given far greater autonomy. Parents should be allowed to play a greater role in our school communities. And money should spent on the young people who have the greatest need rather than on 20,000 sheets of meaningless Curriculum for Excellence guidance. And we will be demanding that the Scottish Government no longer stalls on its commitment to engage with parents who want greater diversity in the state school system. In Milngavie, parents at St Joseph’s primary school have a plan to run their school themselves. Two years on, they’re waiting for an answer. It is high time the Scottish Government gave it.
If this week’s result prove anything, it is that tinkering round the edges will not do. Only radical school reform will see Scotland move back up the international rankings. We need to shake up the quango experts who have let us down so badly. We need to return to the basics of good literacy and numeracy. And we need to give schools the control they need to blossom.
Scotland used to have a well-deserved reputation for being the best in the world at education. We can do it again, but only if John Swinney is prepared to be radical. That may be "uncomfortable" for government ministers wanting an easy life. But if he really wants to go down as a Minister who made a difference, he needs to seize the moment.
Liz Smith is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Mid Scotland and Fife, and the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.