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Education (Subject Choice)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

1. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills took issue with our raising questions about Scottish education in the chamber, so I would like to return to the matter. Recently, Mr Swinney claimed that there has been no narrowing of subject choice for senior pupils in Scotland. Indeed, he said that choice is “blossoming” and that the range of options that are available to young people is “colossal”. Where is the evidence for that?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Perhaps I could quote Ruth Davidson’s education spokesperson, Liz Smith, who, a couple of weeks ago, in the relevant committee, said that there is “more choice” for young people. So, there is some evidence. However, I think that the best evidence of how our education system is performing is the results that our young people are achieving. Whether we look at level 5 qualifications, level 6 qualifications, the number of young people who are getting more than five highers or the narrowing of the attainment gap, we find improvement on all those measures.

That takes me to the flaw in Ruth Davidson’s argument. She wants to tell people that there is something terribly wrong in our education system. Unfortunately, the pupils of Scotland are proving her wrong by doing better each and every year.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

The First Minister talks about the number of qualifications that are being gained, but what she does not say is that the number of A to C grades has dropped by 3 per cent on her watch.

We asked for the evidence on subject choice, and here is what we found. We got results from every school in Scotland, setting out the average number of qualifications that have been taken by pupils in secondary 4 over the past few years—not just national 4 and 5, but every qualification that has been taken. In 2013, when curriculum for excellence was introduced, there were 308 secondary schools in which pupils took an average of seven or more qualifications in S4. By 2018, that figure had fallen to just 182—a drop of more than 40 per cent. By contrast, the number of schools where pupils took six subjects or fewer went up from just 46 in 2013 to 165.

To go back to the education secretary’s comments, does that sound like “blossoming” choice to the First Minister?

The First Minister:

As we have discussed many times in the chamber, it is not simply a matter of the qualifications that young people take in S4. What matters is the qualifications that young people leave school with—the qualifications that they take over the entirety of the senior phase of education.

The head of education in Tory-led Aberdeenshire Council has said:

“Young people mature at different rates, and having qualifications available to them over a three-year period gives much greater flexibility and allows them to learn at a stage when they are ready.”—[

Official Report, Education and Skills Committee

, 15 May 2019; c 3.]

It is the entirety of the senior phase that matters.

Here are the facts. At level 5 and level 6, we see the percentage of pupils getting qualifications increasing. In 2009, 22 per cent of young people left school with five highers or more, and that figure is now more than 30 per cent. Further, we are seeing the attainment gap narrow.

I come back to this fundamental point: the evidence does not bear out Ruth Davidson’s analysis. The evidence is of an education system that is improving and young people who are doing better.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

To be fair, I did not expect a completely impartial answer from the First Minister, so, in anticipation, we decided to seek one out. We put all our findings to Professor Jim Scott, the former headteacher who has probably spent more time than anyone examining changes in subject choice in Scotland. He says that the data confirms that, since the introduction of curriculum for excellence,

“just over 200 schools have declines, or significant declines, in the number of entries (for SQA qualifications) whereas just over fifty demonstrate an increase.”

Does the First Minister accept that, or is that just part of some great moanfest conspiracy, too?

The First Minister:

Much of the analysis that Professor Scott has done has looked at qualifications at S4, but the fundamental point that we are making is that, although that is, of course, important, what is more important is the qualifications that young people leave school with, and we are seeing more young people leave school with more qualifications. We are also seeing the gap between the richest and the poorest narrow. A report this week from our commissioner for fair access says that we are making significant progress in narrowing the attainment gap in terms of young people going on to university. Further, we have a record number of young people going into positive destinations overall.

We will continue to work hard to make progress in education. No matter how much Ruth Davidson wants to talk down the performance of Scottish education, the facts are, quite frankly, proving her wrong.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

If we are going to improve education in this country, we need to accept information and evidence, whether on combined classes or on subject choice being restricted, and the First Minister and the education secretary need to listen. The issue is not just down to schools exercising choice; it is down to schools not having enough teachers or support to provide full choice. Children from disadvantaged areas are suffering the most, because they are still the ones who are most likely to leave school at the end of S4.

The Parliament is already conducting an inquiry into the matter. Will the First Minister and her education secretary spend a bit less time attacking the messengers and a bit more time listening to the evidence that they come forward with?

The First Minister:

We will continue to spend time looking at the evidence. Ruth Davidson never quite manages to respond to the actual evidence, so let me set it out for her again. When this Government took office, just over 70 per cent of young people left school with a level 5 qualification. The figure is now 86 per cent. When we took office, just over 41 per cent of young people left school with a level 6 qualification, and now it is 62 per cent. In 2009, 22 per cent of young people left school with five highers or more, and the figure is now more than 30 per cent. We are also seeing the gap in attainment narrowing. Those are the facts, but Ruth Davidson does not like them because they do not suit her.

On teacher numbers, there are more teachers in our schools now than at any time since 2010. There are more primary school teachers in our schools than at any time since I was at primary school. Ruth Davidson has a bit of a cheek to talk about the number of teachers in our schools when she is the leader of the austerity party in Scotland and the leader of the party that would give tax cuts to the richest and take money out of our education system.

We will get on with the job of improving education, and we will leave Ruth Davidson to defend whichever latest Tory ends up imposing austerity on Scotland.