SNP deserves a D for education but voters still put them top of the class – John McLellan

Skoolz out for Christmas… or not quite, as teachers and pupils trudge into classrooms on Monday and Tuesday, despite unions demanding cancellation of the last two days of face-to-face teaching this term because of increasing Covid-19 infection rates.

Nicola Sturgeon showed she was serious when she said education was a priority by handing the brief to her deputy John Swinney, but the SNP's record does not impress John McLellan (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)
Nicola Sturgeon showed she was serious when she said education was a priority by handing the brief to her deputy John Swinney, but the SNP's record does not impress John McLellan (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

A fortnight ago, Education Secretary John Swinney argued that keeping children in the controlled environment of school was better for limiting the potential for spreading the virus, but by this week Edinburgh’s education convener Ian Perry said it was too late to bring the holiday forward because of the childcare problems it could cause working parents. Take your pick.

What seems undeniable, however, is that either a couple of days playing Buckaroo or not logging into online “blended learning” will make no difference to the educational experience in an already chaotic year, or against a long-term trend of falling educational standards in Scottish schools. Not surprisingly, those opposing an early start to the holiday did not base their argument on a negative impact on teaching itself.

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In fact, concerns about Scottish education voiced for years by experts like Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University and original Curriculum for Excellent architect Keir Bloomer, and amplified by all the opposition political parties in the 13 years since the SNP took power, has had little impact on public confidence in what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly said was her top priority.

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Falling numbers of full-time teachers

She demonstrated her commitment by handing responsibility to her most senior Cabinet colleague, Mr Swinney, but his record is unenviable. Scotland is tumbling down the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) measurements and has withdrawn from other uncomfortable international comparisons, and he has conveniently kicked publication of another OECD study into the Curriculum for Excellence system beyond the May election.

There was the equivalent of just over 55,000 full-time teachers in 2007 when the SNP took power, but Scottish government figures last year showed a fall to 52,247.

School is not quite over for the Christmas break, despite calls from unions to scrap the last two days of face-to-face teaching (Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA)

Children from deprived backgrounds finish secondary schooling some 18 months behind their wealthier counterparts and a Dundee University study last year suggested the attainment gap between children of poor and affluent families is widening.

This summer’s Highers algorithm scandal hit students in deprived areas harder than others, with their results reduced on average by 15 per cent compared to seven per cent for the better-off. Mr Swinney’s face was only saved by UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson repeating the error with A-Level results a fortnight later, which perhaps helps explain why the new Sevanta/Comres poll for this newspaper shows the Scottish public still trusts the SNP far more than the Conservatives, or any other party, to improve education.

The problem with ‘choice’ in education

When I joined the Scottish Conservatives’ communications team in 2012 we identified education as the SNP’s Achilles heel, especially as one of our most effective performers was education spokesperson Liz Smith, whose expert deconstruction of the SNP’s performance was based on her experience as a respected teacher of many years’ standing.

The sharp analysis has not flagged in the following eight years, but the poll is clear and there is a long way to go before new Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross’s recent decision to abandon opposition to free university tuition fees and a manifesto commitment to hire 3,000 more teachers hits home.

Back in 2012, there was much talk about giving parents more choice, of “education vouchers” which parents could “spend” at a school which suited their needs, and while it might work for urban middle-class parents with more than one school to choose from, it’s ineffective in rural communities where the choice was between the local academy, boarding, home schooling or truancy.

And even in the cities, the result was likely to be the kind of situation being played out now at Jordanhill School, with parents fighting for the right to send their kids to a high-achieving institution which is already over-subscribed. In reality, most parents just want their nearest school to be better.

One reason the Left loathes private schools

With so much wrong with Scottish education, it’s hard to understand the faith in the SNP, beyond a depressing belief that the alternatives are worse and this is as good as its going to get.

Another analysis, every bit as gloomy for the opposition, is that even concerned voters have few ways of knowing what is good or bad. Even league tables hated by the teaching unions don’t tell parents much about real education quality because they just compare performance in the same misfiring system.

Most people measure the success of their offspring’s schooling by their happiness and the number of qualifications they earn, not what lies behind them. Who cares if the only novel Higher English students read is The Great Gatsby, as long as they pass?

So what if modern studies teachers tell the kids a load of rubbish about Winston Churchill ordering English tanks to attack striking Glaswegian workers, as Scottish government advice recently recommended, as long as the exam certificate says A, B or C? The new recommendation from the International Council of Education Advisers for total reform of assessment promises more upheaval but not more parental transparency.

It becomes a political problem, if predicted passes turn to failure, if grades are too poor for chosen courses, if the grades are good enough but the course is full, or if universities snub new systems. Most people won’t know if their 17-year-old isn’t as good at maths as a 15-year-old from Singapore, but they’d be furious if their kid failed Higher maths and missed out on an engineering career because of classroom chaos.

Most of us can only go on our expectations because we have few comparisons; private schools and their acres of playing fields are the closest many parents get to seeing an alternative, one reason Left-wingers loathe them so much. Education experts can give the SNP a D for education, but voters need a better marking guide to give the opposition an A. And that suits the SNP just fine.

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