Gina Davidson: We’ll do the maths and it had better add up, Nicola

File picture: Ian Rutherford
File picture: Ian Rutherford
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SO here’s a thing I learned this week. The learned folk who teach law at Edinburgh University are apparently coming under pressure to make things easier for students as the failure rate of students in the first and second years is considered too high.

Rather than query whether the students are applying themselves properly or have the mettle and intellectual rigour to get through what should be one of the toughest of university courses, thresholds could be reduced.

Should we be surprised at this state of affairs? Sadly no. Our education system – once hailed as the best in the world – is in decline.

Let’s start with the numeracy statistics out this week (they were supposed to be published prior to the election but failed to materialise). They showed that pupils in P4, P7 and S2 are performing poorly in maths – and the results are worse every year. That’s across the board of social circumstance, though of course kids from the most deprived areas are performing the worst. The “attainment gap” is not being narrowed.

In the last four years the number of kids performing “well or very well” in maths, in percentage terms, has fallen at P4 level from 76 to 66; in P7 from 72 to 66; in S2 from 42 to 40.

Something serious is going on – the decline at primary level is stark, but the huge shift from primary to high school is hugely worrying. After nine years at school 60 per cent of our children are not performing well in maths. Last year the same survey showed a similar story in literacy. It’s a 
scandal.

The exam results at the end of fourth year show a similar story – last year only 61 per cent of those who sat maths got a pass at A-C. As a parent the most basic expectation you have is that your child will learn to read, to write and how to do arithmetic while at school.

Of course the teaching of your child is a joint project, but these statistics throw into doubt just what they are learning at school – especially as the overall numbers given by the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showed that 36 per cent of second year pupils were meeting none of the standards set by the Curriculum for Excellence.

CfE was regarded as rather woolly and under-resourced before it was even implemented but the fact that more than a third of our nation’s children are not meeting the standards they should be shows that it, our schools, our government – indeed all three – are failing these kids. The majority of whom are from our poorest communities.

It perhaps makes the shocking news that some high schools are shutting down choice for pupils when it comes to choosing the subjects they’ll study in their third and fourth years more understandable.

New figures from think tank Reform Scotland show that the number of National 4 and National 5 exams children can sit varies between five and eight depending on where they live. Back in the 80s – under a Conservative government, no less – I sat nine O Grades. These days there are high schools which will only let kids study five subjects. And these are the same they have to sit at Higher level should they pass. Restricting their choice at the end of S2 could well restrict the university courses to which they might have dreamt of applying.

Similarly as some schools no longer offer Advanced Higher courses pupil options are further reduced – you certainly couldn’t study medicine at Edinburgh University without at least one qualification at that level. The pressures on the law department make me wonder if an Advanced Higher should be automatic to study that course as well.

Of course the schools may well be doing this because they know their resources – rather than their pupils – are not able to cope with more. If headteachers know that lack of staff (there are 4300 fewer teachers now than there were eight years ago) or materials or time means that S2 pupils are not able to reach maths targets why would they invest the little they have into widening choice?

Which makes the whole debate about tuition fees irrelevant. The poorest kids are set to fail from primary, the statistics show they won’t make the grade. The Sutton Trust report proved that last week when it said Scotland was the worst in the UK for poorest children going straight to university from school.

The education system is not a level playing field – with private schooling available for the richest it never has been. Some kids are always brighter than others and some kids are more inclined to avoid further education and opt for apprenticeships or work – though employers too will likely look more favourably on the application which has more exam results.

But there was a reason why in 1997 Tony Blair’s cry of “education, education, education” hit home. Education equals aspiration. Without a decent education system we are giving up aspirations for all our children.

Nicola Sturgeon wants to be judged on what she does to close the attainment gap. She will be. The electorate will do the maths.