For Scottish Education secretary John Swinney, this coming December should be what Sir Alex Ferguson famously described as “squeaky bum time”, when the definitive measurement of how well Scotland’s schools are performing compared to those in other developed countries is published.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produces the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) every three years; it’s not just a collection of national exam results, but the Gold Standard of research involving standardised tests of over half a million 15-year-olds in around 70 countries to see how well they perform in maths, science and reading.
S4 pupils in 109 Scottish schools were tested in 2015 and the results published in 2016 showed all three were down compared to 2012, with maths and science both showing a steady slide from the 2006 and 2009 studies. Although reading recovered slightly between 2006 and 2012, 2015 was the lowest ever and significantly below the first test in 2000.
Mr Swinney took over education in May 2016, so the new PISA results almost exactly cover his tenure. The test group was born in 2003, which means their schooling has been overseen entirely by the SNP Government and can reasonably be said to represent the product of their education policies.
Education is the Scottish Government’s top priority and why First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave the brief to Mr Swinney, her deputy and most senior minister. At the Wester Hailes Education Centre in 2015, she said: “I want to be able to say, with confidence, that there is no better place in the world to be educated than here in Scotland...”
Until now the data shows that amongst the 35 OECD countries Scotland is far from the best place in the world to be educated, not the worst certainly, but a long way for anyone to be confident the top has been reached; slightly better than average for science (19th) and maths (23th) and average for reading (23rd)
Maybe the next report will show a dramatic turnaround, but amidst all the upheaval of Curriculum for Excellence little suggests performance will be back where it was in, say, 2006. Yet in this context of declining standards, Edinburgh’s SNP group has seen fit to give enthusiastic backing for the Green Party’s demand for school pupils to be given the right to stay away from classes to protest against climate change.
Ignoring the advice of the EIS teaching union, which argued the effect needed to be properly understood, councillors have allowed children not only to bunk off to join a Global Day of action next Friday but to “strike” on any day when there’s a climate protest outside the Scottish Parliament.
A parent or carer is supposed to give permission, but there is only a vague reference to any kind of educational benefit which involves “a variety of methods that link to experiences and outcomes within Curriculum for Excellence”.
In other words, they’re making it up. What about pupils being allowed to skip classes to participate in sport or music, some might say, but those are planned and supervised while this has been done on a political whim. Now there can be less comeback when parents whisk the kids off a few days early in June to bag a cheaper fortnight in the, er, sun.
Whether you agree with climate change theory or not, encouraging children to leave their studies to join a protest which fits with the absolutist world view of the people in charge at the City Chambers is the deliberate politicisation of school years. One SNP councillor admitted as such with undisguised glee.
Some might argue there is little difference between this and a religious holiday and such is the zeal of those involved that this feels quasi-religious, a bit like the Children’s Crusade of 1212 which is said to have inspired the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. Seeing as classes end at lunchtime on a Friday can’t they go after school anyway? Let’s not allow practicalities to get in the way of posturing.