Swinney under attack over ‘shameful’ literacy report

John Swinney said education reforms would take time to deliver improvements. Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire
John Swinney said education reforms would take time to deliver improvements. Picture: Russell Cheyne/PA Wire
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Education secretary John Swinney has admitted “overbearing” guidance is distracting teachers from educating children after new data showed falling literacy standards among Scottish pupils.

The Scottish Government’s education record came under fresh attack after its own official report revealed fewer than half of Scotland’s 13 and 14-year-olds are performing well in writing.

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) also showed the gap that sees children from rich backgrounds outperform their poorer counterparts in the classroom has not closed since 2012.

After a decade in power, the SNP administration’s opponents said the “shameful” findings of the report suggested the Scottish Government had failed a generation of children.

In a statement to Holyrood, Mr Swinney said more effort has to be made to track pupils’ progress throughout their school career.

He also admitted more had to be done to identify pupils who need additional support.

“We need to be clearer about the standards expected in our classrooms,” the education secretary said.

“This is has meant teachers have not always been certain about what is required to meet each Curriculum for Excellence level in literacy, in numeracy and across the curriculum area. Too much well-meaning but overbearing guidance has been produced nationally, locally and sometimes in schools themselves. This has created too much clutter in the curriculum and can divert teachers time from learning and teaching.”

The most dramatic fall was amongst the writing abilities of S2 pupils, aged 13 and 14, in secondary school. The percentage of S2 pupils performing well in writing fell from almost two thirds (64 per cent) in 2012 to below half (49 per cent) last year - a decline of 15 percentage points.

A similar trend was observed amongst children in the final year at primary school. The percentage of primary seven pupils performing well in writing fell from 72 per cent to 65 per cent between 2012 and 2016 - a decline of seven percentage points.

The percentage of primary four pupils performing well in reading fell from 83 per cent to 77 per cent.

In reading, there was also a two percentage points fall in primary seven pupils (from 90 per cent to 88 per cent) and a drop from 84 per cent to 82 per cent in S2 students.

Nicola Sturgeon has staked her political reputation on closing the attainment gap between rich and poor children. But the figures showed that 89 per cent of S2 pupils from the most well-off areas performed well in reading compared with 73 per cent of children from the most deprived areas. The report added that the size of the gap has not changed since 2012.

When it came to writing, it was more pronounced and was “similar” to that recorded in 2012.

In writing, 59 per cent of S2 pupils from the better off areas performing well in writing compared with 40 per cent in the most deprived.

Shadow education secretary Liz Smith MSP said: “These are shameful results which show that, over its ten years in office, this SNP government has failed a generation.”

The Scottish Conservative MSP continued: “Given this evidence, it is abundantly clear that the Scottish Government is not doing enough to address the problems in basic literacy that this data highlights.

“It also shows that a very persistent gap between pupils from the most deprived areas and the least deprived areas continues, and that needs to be tackled.”

Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “These figures are the education legacy of ten years of SNP government and they are an absolute disgrace.

“No child should have their life chances determined by their background - yet that is exactly what is happening under a Nationalist government obsessed with the constitution. The SNP has starved our schools of £1 billion in recent years, and a generation of children has paid the price. There are 4,000 fewer teachers, 1,000 fewer school support staff and 700 teacher vacancies that will take three years to fill under the SNP.

“Class sizes are the biggest in the developed world.”

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said the SNP’s “obsession” with independence had taken a “terrible toll on Scottish education”.

“Their record is shameful,” he said. “There has been no progress on narrowing the gap between pupils from the least and most deprived areas - something the First Minister said was her priority.”

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said: “Although the dip in measured levels of performance in writing at S2 is clearly worthy of further analysis, it is important that we keep these figures in context and consider the environment in which schools, pupils and teachers were working in at the time this survey was carried out.

“These particular figures relate to 2016, a session when teachers and pupils were being placed under great strain through over assessment linked to new qualifications and the resultant excessive workload demands.”

READ MORE: Literacy levels drop among Scots pupils