Scottish education: What the OECD report teaches us about the SNP – Daniel Johnson MSP

It is just over two weeks since the critical OECD report on Scottish education was published. But I think the true lessons from it are yet to fully sink in.
The SNP needs to confront their own mistakes if Scottish education is to improve, says Daniel Johnson (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)The SNP needs to confront their own mistakes if Scottish education is to improve, says Daniel Johnson (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
The SNP needs to confront their own mistakes if Scottish education is to improve, says Daniel Johnson (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

Its findings laid out in black in white some of the key issues in Scotland’s education system. More importantly, the issues it highlighted were not accidental or features carried over whose origins were long forgotten. No, it set out key structural problems and each of them was a direct consequence of the way Curriculum for Excellence was devised and implemented.

The OECD is not in the habit of writing reports like this. I remember reading the last one they wrote five years ago. I had to read it twice, the points were there but you had to read between the lines of very diplomatic language and gentle hints. Not so this time.

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Implementation of Curriculum for Excellence has lacked structure and long-term perspective. Not my words but a heading in the executive summary of the report. They also found that there was no systematic approach to identifying issues and improving the curriculum. That implementation lacked clarity leading to difficulties for teachers implementing it. Finally they criticised the combined role of Education Scotland and the inspectorate.

If John Swinney had not been moved on after the election, he would have had to have been sacked. When it was pointed out that new exams were incompatible with breadth of education, he denied it. When asked about accountability for decisions for Curriculum for Excellence and ongoing improvement, he ignored it. When pushed on the conflict of interest in having Education Scotland both set the curriculum and inspect the system, he defended it.

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Ultimately, the report highlights the degree they have obfuscated and stonewalled criticism.

But the issues with curriculum are not just about its implementation and operation. At its very heart were a series of fudged decisions and hard choices that were side-stepped. In education globally, there are two models that deliver world-beating results.

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There is the formal Singapore model or the Finnish approach, based on teacher autonomy. They tried to do both – talking up teacher autonomy but with endless lists of “experiences and outcomes” to be delivered. The brutal bottom line is that Scotland has fallen down international rankings and has falling Higher pass rates.

But this should come as no surprise. The SNP are conservative in their approach to government. They don't really do reform. They prefer to make small changes, albeit dressed up in big rhetoric.

That’s why we still run our health service along the lines of a regional tier of government that no longer exists. Even at the most practical level, this is the government that bans nursery graduation during lockdown but green-lights fan zones. When push comes to shove they don’t like to rock the boat or try to do the difficult things. The result is intransigence and fudged decision-making.

Scottish education is at a crossroads. The SNP need to make some tough decisions but most importantly they need to confront their own mistakes. The importance of education means I hope they do. Last year they caused upset by giving grades based on past performance – they will be hoping they are not judged on this basis.

Daniel Johnson is Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern

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