SNP must face up to schools’ problems, not bury their heads in nursery sandpit – John McLellan

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Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth complains about ‘dispiriting questions’ as if Holyrood is not the place to raise problems

To have the best standard of reading in Western Europe, the best in the English-speaking world and fourth in the world is a splendid record for UK schools. But there is one small caveat with the five-yearly Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) for Scottish schools; they’re not included, and the plaudit is only for those in England.

Pirls is one of two international measurements from which the Scottish Government withdrew a decade ago to save money, leaving only the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) scheme to gauge how well Scottish schools are faring. On the face of it, Scotland should be on a par with England because the last Pisa reading scores, from 2018, were very similar. The tests are supposed to be mainly of 15-year-olds in S4, but the last sample had an unusually high number of S5 pupils, about half, and academics cast doubt over the Scottish result’s reliability.

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In 2015, Edinburgh University research suggested leaving Pirls led to poor teaching techniques, but of even greater concern will be standards of maths and science, because even with a skewed 2018 sample the Scottish Pisa performance showed a dramatic and sustained decline in both. Sadly, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study was another survey dumped by the SNP, and although Humza Yousaf wisely promised to rejoin Pirls and Timss, the damage has been done.

Young Scots are not to blame, but the SNP has left them with much catching up to do, and despite the pledge to open Scottish education to internationally recognised examination, at issue is whether it has the necessary will to force the pace of change.

As an ex-teacher, new Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth should be ideally placed to know what needs doing, and during a Holyrood debate on Tuesday, Ms Gilruth was very quick to laud policies like child benefit increases, early learning for three- and four-year-olds and free buses for under 22s.

But when Conservative Meghan Gallacher moved onto low entries for Higher maths and science subjects, the rejection of proposed Scottish Qualifications Authority reforms, and the widely recognised failure of Curriculum for Excellence, amongst other acknowledged problems, this was, according to Ms Gilruth, an attempt to “politicise the issues”.

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Only six weeks into the job and it was a tired response, made all the worse by the plaintive retreat to “this is about our children and young people” as if it does them a service by pretending everything is rosy when most evidence suggests otherwise. Ms Gilruth criticised Ms Gallacher for “dispiriting” questions, but there is little more dispiriting than a defensive government minister with experience in the sector for which she now has full responsibility feebly suggesting Parliament is not a place for politicians to raise government failures.

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, seen with Humza Yousaf, can't wish her problems away (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, seen with Humza Yousaf, can't wish her problems away (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth, seen with Humza Yousaf, can't wish her problems away (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

The debate came after the departing Children and Young People’s Commissioner Bruce Adamson had said the Scottish Government had “absolutely” failed to improve the lives of children, and there can be no bigger failure than schools ill-equipped to give young people the skills they need to prosper in adulthood.

Other recent figures show the strides that Chinese universities are making, pushing Scottish universities down the world league table, and in an increasingly competitive world, the Education Secretary can’t bury her head in the nursery sandpit and wish problems away.

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