Curriculum for Excellence

– in the Scottish Parliament on 6th November 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-19717, in the name of Liz Smith, on curriculum for excellence.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced its very important and comprehensive report on Scottish education in 2015, it prioritised some key recommendations. The report was very clear that the principles that underlie curriculum for excellence are the rights ones, and that the twin ambitions of excellence and equity should underpin all aspects of education policy. It also had many good things to say about the approach to holistic learning. Those are the exactly the reasons why all parties in Parliament agreed with Peter Peacock, the Minister for Education and Young People at the time, that curriculum for excellence was the right approach for the 21st century.

However, the report also warned that significant challenges existed in respect of delivery of curriculum for excellence. It highlighted both the absolute and relative decline in some aspects of attainment—mathematics being its primary focus—expressed concern about the higher incidence of lower achievement among secondary pupils compared with previous standards, and about the difficulty of evaluating curriculum for excellence because there was insubstantial research and incomplete data. On that last point, it recommended strengthening

“evaluation and research, including independent knowledge”,

which was not helped, of course, by Scottish Government actions to remove Scotland from some key international measurements.

Therefore, let me use an evidence-based approach in the debate. There is no doubt that curriculum for excellence was designed to build on the widely acknowledged strengths of Scottish education, and to ensure that schools would be fit for the 21st century. I agree with the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills when he says that that demands a change of culture and a different approach in our thinking, such that we are not wedded to old theories and practice. However, that should never become the excuse just to move on and hope that by adopting a new culture, the current problems of Scottish education will be solved.

Curriculum for excellence is about far more than just exams and the traditional measures of attainment, but those traditional measures still matter, just as they do in any education system anywhere in the world.

The cabinet secretary often cites the increase in the number of new qualifications that are available to young people as justification for claiming success for curriculum for excellence, but that must surely be set alongside what is happening to the core qualifications that parents, young people and employers will always see as being important for job prospects. It is undoubtedly true that there has been a very considerable increase in the number of new qualifications, but the increase remains much smaller than the extent of the fall in the numbers who are sitting core qualifications.

Our serious educationists in Scotland—including Mark Priestley, Lindsay Paterson, Keir Bloomer and Jim Scott—have examined the facts using the evidence-based approach that the OECD claimed was needed so much. In short, those specialists have, through their painstaking efforts, provided us with a very considerable bank of evidence about developments in Scottish education over the past decade—evidence that shows that, despite all the past strengths of Scottish education, there are some deeply worrying trends in the current system.

The biggest concerns are, first, that attainment in the core subjects has varied across the picture. The facts—including evidence that was presented to the Education and Skills Committee—show that there has been a very marked downward shift in subject choices away from science, technology, engineering and mathematics, languages and social subjects, to the extent that some subjects are approaching very serious problems for their sustainability in the future—to say nothing of the negative effects that that would have on the economy.

Secondly, even after taking into consideration structural and demographic changes, there has been a significant decline in attainment in several key areas of literacy and numeracy.

The third area of great concern relates to Professor Jim Scott’s latest evidence, which highlights the fact that the least-able pupils are losing out most. For Scottish Conservative members, that is the key concern, given that curriculum for excellence was supposed to help that pupil cohort most. I will return to that point in a minute.

All the time, however, John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon are very keen on telling us that attainment is improving and that exam results are getting better, but that is simply not a fully accurate picture.

If the cabinet secretary will not listen to me, he must surely listen to his own advisers. We know that civil servants produced a paper on 2 August in which concerns about the issue were raised. One of his officials told him:

“I am concerned about the drop in the overall Higher pass rate (down 2 percentage points) and in relation to English (down 2.7 percentage points) and mathematics (down 2.1 percentage points) in particular.”

We also know that, when the Scottish Qualifications Authority results were published, the officials were proved right. But what did Mr Swinney say when it was revealed that 2019 was the fourth year of falling attainment in highers—the so-called gold standard of Scottish education? Mr Swinney said that the summer results were

“a strong set of results” and that he was not too concerned about “annual variation”.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I wonder how Liz Smith would describe a 75 per cent higher pass rate? Does she not consider that to be a strong performance by the young people of Scotland?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I think that Mr Swinney should listen to what his civil servants have been telling him about their concerns about the downturn in the highers pass rate. That has happened four years in a row.

From the research evidence that we have available, it is increasingly clear that all groups of learners, from the most able to the least able, have suffered negative impacts from curriculum for excellence—despite all the good intentions. Particularly worrying, however, is the fact that the least able, or lower-level, learners have suffered to a significantly greater extent than those who are more able. It must surely be a matter of very considerable concern that the level of pupils with zero formal attainment has risen sharply, and has reached more than 3 per cent of the school-leaver population in a quarter of local authorities. If the cabinet secretary is going to tell me that extensive alternative provision of courses hides the true level of attainment, he will need to provide convincing evidence that is not currently in the public domain and is nowhere to be seen on most schools’ websites.

I know that time is short, Presiding Officer. I note that the cabinet secretary intends to support our motion. I hope that he will understand that we have very serious concerns about the direction of curriculum for excellence. The Education and Skills Committee has also said that it has concerns, employers have said that they have concerns and our educationists have said that they have concerns. It is time that the Scottish Government listened and acted.

I move,

That the Parliament is committed to the principles of excellence and equity to underpin policy approaches to education and to improve the delivery of the curriculum for excellence (CfE), but notes with growing concern the recent analysis of CfE, including the recent publication from Professor Jim Scott, which draws the conclusion that the attainment gap is widening and highlights that there are failures in the delivery of CfE; notes in particular that these failures are imposing proportionately greater barriers to success among the pupil cohort who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and calls on the Scottish Government to urgently address these concerns.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call John Swinney to speak to and move amendment S5M-19717.1. I beg your pardon—I mean S5M-19717.2. You were about to move the Labour amendment, cabinet secretary. That would have been interesting.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I would have been unable to move the dismal words of the Labour amendment. I will, however, move the amendment in my name, which you properly ascribed to me.

Improving the education and life chances of all our children and young people, irrespective of their background, is the defining mission of the Scottish Government. Today’s debate focuses on one particular analysis report on education performance. In addressing the issue, it is important that we seek the broadest possible discussion, and that we incorporate a wide range of evidence and analysis.

The Conservatives claim that the attainment gap is widening. I refute that claim. If we look across a broad set of data, we see that we are beginning to make progress in closing the attainment gap.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I will give way in a second. Let me first put some details on the record.

The gap for those achieving at least one pass or more at level 5—such as national 5s—or better has fallen by around one third, from 33.3 per cent in 2009-2010 to 20.3 per cent in 2017-2018. The gap at higher level—level 6—for those achieving at least one pass has fallen by almost one fifth, from 45.6 per cent in 2009-2010 to 37.4 per cent in 2017-2018.

I was surprised that Liz Smith could not bring herself to describe a 75 per cent pass rate in highers as a strong performance. The gap at higher level—level 6—has reduced every single year for the past eight years. Figures that were published in June showed a record proportion of school leavers going on to positive destinations, and the gap between those from the most-deprived and the least-deprived communities achieving positive destinations reduced from 20.2 per cent to 8.6 per cent between 2019-2010 and 2017-2018.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Professor Jim Scott’s analysis, which was published earlier this week, deals with the issue methodically—school by school and local authority by local authority. The title of his report is “Widening the Gap”. Does the Scottish Government accept that analysis?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I was coming to discussion of the analysis that Professor Scott issued this week, because Liz Smith’s motion refers to it, and she referred to it in her comments.

I am aware that one statistic—on the proportion of young people leaving school with no qualifications—has drawn particular attention. However, I ask members to exercise caution in using one statistic from which to draw definitive conclusions about the system. The no-qualifications rate reached a low point of 1.5 per cent in 2012-13. It has remained at around 2 per cent over the past three years. However, that data, as with much of Jim Scott’s analysis, focuses solely on national qualifications at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 3 and above. It is a fact that not all of those young people leave with nothing: the majority of those leavers achieved a course award or unit assessment.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I will continue, if Mr Johnson will forgive me.

Around a fifth of leavers left with a course award—for example, a national 2 award, an employability award, or a modern languages for life and work award. A further two fifths achieved one unit assessment or more.

The reality is—Liz Smith referred to this in her contribution—that our young people are achieving a breadth of awards that give them the best chance of success in further learning, life and work. More than 54,000 skills-based qualifications were achieved in 2019—more than double the figure that was achieved in 2012, which was 24,849.

Let me be absolutely clear: no pupil in our education system should leave school without the knowledge, skills and attributes that they need. That is why we took the decisions to invest through the Scottish attainment challenge, the schools programme and pupil equity funding, to focus on ensuring that young people who face barriers to learning are supported to overcome those obstacles and to reach a positive outcome in their education.

It is vital that we have a broad discussion about such questions. That is why the Government is commissioning an independent review of the senior phase. I would like to say more about that review. Its purpose will be to explore further how curriculum for excellence is being implemented for young people in secondary 4 to S6 across the country, and to identify improvements that might be made.

In taking forward the review, I have sought assistance and leadership from outwith our education system, which is why we have asked the OECD to provide leadership. That follows on from what Liz Smith described as the

“very important and comprehensive report” that in 2015 the OECD undertook on broad general education under curriculum for excellence.

It is important that our education sector is closely involved, because the OECD’s leadership of the review must be informed by the experiences of young people and practitioners in our education system. If we do not listen to the experiences of young people, we will fail them badly in the exercise.

In line with empowerment of the teaching profession, education practitioners will work alongside the OECD team. That work will be led by Tony McDade from South Lanarkshire Council—a local authority director of education who has been nominated by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.

The review will draw on the broadest possible range of evidence and data. One significant factor in that will be the Scottish Government’s senior phase headteachers survey, which provides factual information from a range of schools on a range of curricular models and rationales that demonstrates the impact of CFE.

We will work with our local and national partners to agree the final remit of the review, and we will provide an opportunity for the Education and Skills Committee to give its views on the content of the review.

The review is an important exercise in looking properly at all the evidence, not just one part of it, and it will address issues for the future of the senior phase in Scottish education.

I move amendment S5M-19717.2, to insert at end:

“by conducting the review supported by the Parliament on 1 May 2019, called for by the Education and Skills Committee in its cross-party report into the senior phase of Scottish education, which was published in September 2019, and previously committed to by the Scottish Government, and notes that the independent review will draw on evidence from education stakeholders and partners, including the latest data on young people’s progress through CfE and the outcomes they achieve when they leave school.”

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I rise to support the motion and to speak to the far from dismal amendment in my name.

I congratulate Liz Smith on bringing the debate to the chamber. In truth, it is a very short debate for an enormously important and complex subject. That, of course, is because Opposition debates are, it seems, the only way in which we can debate school education at all in the Parliament. It is now more than two whole years since the Government saw fit to bring forward a debate on schools in its own time. That happened on 2 November 2017, and that debate was about the presumption of mainstreaming. It is even longer since the last Government debate on school education in general. We have to go back to June 2017 to find that.

It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the Government is somewhat reluctant to have its record on education scrutinised. Given the figures that Professor Scott published this week, which are referred to in the Conservative motion, perhaps that is not surprising.

Professor Scott’s analysis of the SQA results is very worrying. The analysis is very detailed, of course, but the headline figures show that, since the introduction of the new exams, attainment has declined by 32.9 per cent in S4 and by nearly 10 per cent in S5. The raw numbers are even starker. Professor Scott calculates that, over the six and five years respectively since the introduction of the new exams, pupils have achieved 807,000 fewer qualifications in S4 and 36,000 fewer qualifications in S5 than might have been expected. Those are alarming figures, and the impact is not uniform.

It is entirely legitimate to look at the percentage of pupils who leave school with no qualifications at all, because they are at the sharpest end of the attainment gap. The number of such pupils is rising quickly and has reached more than 3 per cent in a quarter of local authorities, as Liz Smith said. It is the case, as John Swinney said, that the number had fallen to a low of 1.5 per cent, but the point is that that was an historic trend. The number had been falling since the introduction of comprehensive education, when some 70 per cent of young people left school without qualifications. It took us 50 years to reverse that trend, and we should start to worry if it turns around again.

In S5 and S6 in particular, the drop in the number of enrolments, as well as in attainment, is hitting STEM subjects and modern languages hardest. Professor Scott makes the point that some languages face an existential threat in our schools.

The worst thing is that none of this is new. In May 2015, Labour first raised Professor Scott’s work in the chamber. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister dismissed our concerns but, four years on, there have been not only alarming numbers but alarming and consistent downward trends. Professor Scott is not a lone voice any more. The Education and Skills Committee’s recent report on the underlying causes of the fall in the number of qualifications uncovered evidence from a wide range of sources of a narrowing of the curriculum, the prevalence of multilevel teaching and pressure on overworked teachers. All those issues are relevant and are part of Labour’s amendment.

Given that I have mentioned overworked teachers, let me be very clear. I visit schools all the time, as I know Mr Swinney does, too, and the quality and professionalism of teachers are, indeed, second to none. The level of professionalism is much greater than it was when I was a teacher 35 years ago. The problems lie not with our teaching staff but in the management and structures relating to the implementation of curriculum for excellence.

I understand that the Government has agreed to a review, but that was asked for in May, and we have heard only today how it will be taken forward.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Could you conclude, please, Mr Gray?

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

It is critical that the review moves forward quickly.

I move amendment SM5-19717.1, to insert after “delivery of CfE”:

“recognises that such failures have resulted in, for example, a narrowing of subject choice in the senior phase, a prevalence of multi-level teaching and an increased workload for many teachers;”.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I thank Liz Smith for bringing the topic for debate. Like Iain Gray, I am frustrated that, once again, we are debating education during Opposition time alone. Given that the Government claims that educational attainment is its top priority, it is frankly alarming that the Scottish National Party is so reluctant to bring forward debates on our schools during Government time.

However, if we look at the findings from Professor Jim Scott, we see that it is not difficult to understand why the Government is not falling over itself to bring the issue to Parliament. There has been a sustained trend of decline in overall attainment, a widening of the attainment gap and an increase in the number of learners who leave school without qualifications. We all agree on the principles of curriculum for excellence, but its introduction at a time of budget and staffing cuts, compounded by confusion over policy and objectives, has been a recipe for some quite predictable problems. Teachers have been left to pick up the pieces by a Government that did not plan properly or invest in the implementation of the biggest change to Scottish education for decades.

Worst of all, it has been left to academics to research and compile the information that the Parliament finds itself using regularly, both in the chamber and committees. Where was the body that is responsible for inspecting standards in Scottish schools? The last time Education Scotland appeared before the Education and Skills Committee, it refused outright to accept findings—including those of Professor Scott—showing the impact of deprivation on subject choice. It insisted that its experience told a different story, yet it failed to undertake any kind of comprehensive research or analysis of deprivation and its impact on attainment—thus the committee’s clear instruction that it now do so.

Professor Scott has highlighted in his report an apparent lack of concern at all levels of governance about attainment. That reflects my experience with the public body that is responsible for standards in our schools and, given the Government’s aversion to bringing forward debates on education, it feels as though such a culture permeates the Government and ministerial level as well.

The widening of our attainment gap and the increase in the number of young people leaving school without qualifications cannot be viewed in isolation. I welcome the SQA’s confirmation that it is looking at the increase in the number of leavers with no qualifications, but the 18-month timescale that it gave indicates a lack of urgency that the cabinet secretary really must put right.

It would be wrong to pretend that the issues are all within education policy. They are also the result of poverty and the impact of that poverty on children who are growing up in Scotland. Around one in four children in Scotland live in relative poverty, a figure that has been rising steadily since around 2010 when the coalition Government began the waves of austerity that are still hitting our public services. Cuts to welfare support, punitive sanctions and caps on child tax credits have all left families worse off. A low minimum wage, excessive qualifying periods for protection against unfair dismissal, the growth of zero-hours contracts and the expansion of the gig economy mean that work is no longer a route out of poverty, either. Families get trapped in a low-pay no-pay cycle.

Closing the attainment gap in education simply will not happen at a time when child poverty is once again growing. That is not to say that everything needs to be solved at Westminster or even here at Holyrood. Councils provide key services for families in poverty; lunch and breakfast clubs, social and recreational activities, libraries, support services, housing and transport are all provided at the local level. We know from the experience of Finland that policies such as free lunches for all pupils are key to its high levels of attainment. For Finland, attainment and equality across the board go hand in hand, and it is no coincidence that it is one of the highest-attaining countries and has one of the lowest rates of child poverty on the planet.

That is why the Greens have prioritised halting the cuts to council budgets in our negotiations with the Government over recent years, but there is so much more to do. This time last year, the Greens set out in our paper “Level the Playing Field” a range of policies that will help pupils. The Government is more than welcome to take and implement anything that was proposed in that paper; indeed, in a few instances—after a little encouragement—it already has. Education is an area in which Opposition parties are genuinely keen to work with the Government, but whether the issue is officials unwilling to even collect the data that is required or ministers unwilling to bring the issues to debate, we need to see not just a change in policy but a fundamental shift in Government culture.

The Greens are happy to support the motion and both amendments today.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

Here were are again—another Opposition-led debate on the state of Scotland’s education system. I thank the Conservatives for giving us the opportunity to debate this hugely important issue, but I hope that it will be the Government that brings forward the next education debate.

The rationale behind curriculum for excellence is too important to abandon. We must ensure that our pupils have the skills that they need to succeed in the 21st century world of changing technology and work patterns. It was a fair criticism that the old curriculum often pushed pupils through exams by teaching them how to pass rather than how to learn, and it was fair to say that traditional subjects were often prioritised to the detriment of alternative courses that might be better suited to some pupils. Therefore, we are calling not for wholesale change but for the Government to fix what is going wrong before an entire cohort of our young people is disadvantaged through no fault of its own.

The first step is for the Government to listen to the evidence. The cabinet secretary told Parliament the last time we held this debate that we should wait for the Education and Skills Committee’s report to be published before drawing any conclusions on the evidence—so seven months later, we are here having exactly the same debate. The reason is that the members who were involved in that inquiry and who are concerned about Scotland’s education know credible evidence when they see it. Teacher shortages, a lack of resources and a confused chain of accountability are creating a postcode lottery of opportunity.

We know that there are 1,000 fewer maths and English teachers than there were in 2008 and that that is affecting schools such as Aith junior high school in Shetland, which is advertising yet again for an English teacher after several failed attempts to recruit.

The motion also highlights the important work of Professor Jim Scott, who gave evidence to the committee. Professor Scott’s work is hugely valuable to policy makers, but we should not rely on him to do the research that is needed to properly evaluate the curriculum. Education Scotland needs to up its game. It is extraordinary that it cannot provide figures on teachers or the number of multilevel classes, or evidence on the impact of deprivation on subject choice.

The responsibility for fixing what has gone wrong should not fall on teachers, who are doing their best with the resources that they have. One of my constituents, who is a recently retired teacher, recently told me that CFE means curriculum for effluence rather than curriculum for excellence, and they were not using the word positively. I do not agree with that description, but it is useful to think of it in another way.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I appreciate that any individual teacher is entitled to their view, but the member says that she regards that as a “useful” contribution. Does she really think that it is?

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

As I said, I do not agree with the description, but I was coming on to make the point that it is useful to think of it in another way, which is that curriculum for excellence is about making sure that our young people flow out of school with all the skills that they need to succeed in whatever they choose to do next. Too many are doing that in spite of their school experience and not because of it. We therefore need the flow of the guidance and resources that are needed to make our curriculum a success to progress better through all levels of accountability.

The senior phase review that the Parliament has called for must be an opportunity for real improvement. We will back the motion.

Photo of Alison Harris Alison Harris Conservative

The motion is focused on the weaknesses in the delivery of the curriculum for excellence and the real effect that those are having on Scotland’s children. The Parliament has heard that the structure of the CFE has narrowed subject choice in S4, which greatly limits future options for our young people. That has been voiced in evidence to the Parliament many times by stakeholders from across the political spectrum and outwith it. I will focus on the drop in overall attainment and the widening of the attainment gap.

The recent academic paper by Professor Jim Scott, who has contributed to the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee regularly and thoroughly, is a valuable addition to the debate on Scotland’s education. He notes that the Scottish Government could do a lot more to increase the quality and quantity of the data that we have on attainment. One of the main intentions of the CFE is to close the attainment gap through a number of initiatives. However, as the paper reveals, since those initiatives have come into place, equity has worsened and attainment has fallen. In fact, Professor Scott found that the percentage of pupils leaving school with no qualifications has risen since the implementation of the CFE. For example, in Falkirk, which is in my region, the proportion of children leaving school without any formal qualifications has almost tripled, from 1 per cent in 2012-13 to 2.8 per cent last year.

There are many other findings in Professor Scott’s paper, but one figure that particularly stands out contradicts the Scottish Government, which has claimed that subject choice is not narrowing. Professor Scott noted that roughly half of secondary schools have adopted a six-course model for pupils in S4, whereas the norm was always seven or eight courses. That one factor was responsible for more than a third of the decline in attainment in S4 from 2013 to the current day.

That is concrete evidence of two things: first, that there has been a narrowing of subject choice in S4; and, secondly, that that narrowing has led to significant drops in attainment. The Government’s favourite counter point—that alternative courses are making up for the fall in subject choice—is also addressed in Professor Scott’s publication, which shows that, although there has been a rise of about 15,000 annual alternative qualification passes from 2013 to this year, that has coincided with a fall of nearly 165,000 annual traditional course passes. That is staggering.

The problems in our education system are very real. Despite the SNP’s attempts to stifle the evidence, research such as that by Professor Scott exposes just how bad the situation is.

Attainment is falling, our teachers are overworked and the equity-related attainment gap is not closing. In his paper, Professor Scott said:

“Equity has also suffered, perhaps significantly, as a result of nNQs and CfE.”

We need a Scottish Government that follows through on its promises to prioritise education and get it right for every child. It is unfortunate that we do not have that. Members of the Opposition parties owe it to our teachers and pupils to do everything we can to expose the failures of this Scottish Government until each and every concern is addressed.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

Like many members, I took very seriously the Education and Skills Committee’s concerns when it undertook its inquiry into subject choice, but I do not think that we are reflecting the full conclusions of the report. There is a failure to recognise that we are comparing what happened previously in relation to national qualifications with how curriculum for excellence is designed to work. Indeed, how curriculum for excellence works and advances that have been made are still not recognised in the statistics.

We do ourselves and our pupils and teachers a disservice if we look only at the numbers. For example, my son, who has just graduated in music, was not able to do advanced higher music at his school, because it was not available on the curriculum. If we looked just at his school timetable, we would think that the option was not available. However, he was able to do that subject, of course, because there was an arrangement in the local authority to enable people to travel to do qualifications outwith the school—in another school, for example. Work has been done to ensure that pupils get opportunities to study what they want to study, and I think that that is being missed in the debate—yet again. It is important that we consider curriculum for excellence in the round and the outcomes for young people.

I would share people’s concern if there were proven to be a lack of progress on attainment and if people were being disadvantaged, but that is not what I see and it is not what universities and colleges are seeing. There is a great uptake in applications to university and more of our young people are getting on and doing what they want to do.

I emphasise again that, just as we all recognise and support the principles of curriculum for excellence, we all supported the developing the young workforce programme, which absolutely was about preparing our young people for the workplace. That means that additional qualifications, voluntary qualifications, Duke of Edinburgh awards, foundation apprenticeships, college access courses and so on are just as important to the outcomes as the list of qualifications is. I hope that we can move away from the current approach to the debate.

I share people’s concerns, which is why the committee asked the Government to research a number of areas. We know that the independent review of the senior phase is about to get under way. We asked the Government to consider the impact of different curricular models, because the situation is complex and not easy to understand just by counting pupil numbers or results.

I will give another example. Many more pupils are going straight to higher level qualifications without taking the equivalent of a standard grade qualification, which is the national 4 qualification. That shows in the statistics as a reduction in the number of nat 4 qualifications, but we know that schools are taking the opportunity to enable pupils to miss out that phase and go straight to higher qualifications.

That is why the independent review must consider curricular models and what is happening on the ground in our schools. I really hope that we can move forward positively on the issue.

I thank Ross Greer for making the important point that we cannot consider what is happening in our schools without looking at the great impact that austerity and other decisions of the Conservative Party are having on families in our communities. It is much, much harder for people to achieve things when they cannot get the basics of life right—we need only look to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to know just how important that is.

The Presiding Officer:

Yes, I am afraid that you are.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I will follow on from where the convener of the Education and Skills Committee left off. She is right that it is vital that we look at the curriculum for excellence in the round.

Before coming into this Parliament, I was aware of the issues and anecdotes around curriculum for excellence. When I was first a member of the Education and Skills Committee and we were looking at curriculum for excellence, Ross Greer and I were in the chat room with a group of student teachers. We asked them, “What is the biggest single challenge that you face as student teachers?” We did not know what they were going to say. They said, “It is teaching third years.” We were surprised. When we asked them to explain what that meant, they said that their point was that pupils in that age group are difficult to teach, because they do not see the point of being at school. They have not yet started their qualifications, but they have finished the broad general education. There are other insights, such as the misgivings about the reasons that some schools stick with the two-year, eight-subject model for secondary 3 and 4. Why is there a decline of some subjects? Why are young people having to drop more subjects at an earlier point?

The problem that we have in this debate is that we do not have the data and evidence to provide insight into what is happening—which things are reality and which are just anecdotes. I do not want to criticise curriculum for excellence, for one important reason: we are all invested in it and we all need it to succeed. Above all else, it is the right approach. It is right that we have a curriculum that seeks to give young people the skills that they need in order to learn, rather than filling their heads with facts. That is what they need in order to succeed in the 21st century.

When we undertake major change, such as introducing curriculum for excellence, it is vital that we stop to assess, reflect and—when things are not working correctly—adjust. The reality of this Government’s approach is that there has been a paucity of that analysis, a lack of review and a lack of a baseline set of data, in order to assess whether we are succeeding in what we set out to achieve with the curriculum for excellence.

I thank Jim Scott for his useful contribution. I agree with the Deputy First Minister that we cannot take a single measure and treat it as a verdict on the whole system. I also say to him that he needs to look at all the measures in the round. Some of the measures that Professor Scott raised are matters for concern and need to be addressed. I ask that those things are addressed in the review into the senior phase. I am pleased that the Deputy First Minister provided further detail on what that will entail. Until now, there has been a lack of that detail. Although I am pleased that the OECD is being asked to conduct that review and that it will look at the effectiveness of S4 to S6, I would like to understand when it will report and what other things it will look at. It is not good enough simply to look at the effectiveness of those years.

As I hinted at in my anecdote, there is also the question of the broad general education. It is the flipside of the coin to the senior phase. Breadth is the key value in the Scottish education system, so we must look at the direction of intent and whether breadth is being maintained. We also need to look at qualification design. I would be grateful if the Deputy First Minister could clarify whether those things will be covered.

Unless we measure, we cannot manage. We need to look at the range of measures that we have in our system. The Scottish Government’s record is not good. We have withdrawn from the international mathematics and science study and the progress in international reading literacy study. We have scrapped the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy. This Government has dismantled our ability to compare ourselves internationally and with ourselves.

The Presiding Officer:

Please conclude, Mr Johnson.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

We need to understand how we are achieving. We need to have confidence in the measurements that we have of our education system.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

I welcome this opportunity to discuss curriculum for excellence, and in particular the work that the Government is doing to close the attainment gap across Scotland. We all know that closing the attainment gap is at the heart of the Scottish Government’s agenda, and I feel comfortable saying that everyone in the Parliament values and places the utmost importance on doing that.

I find it a great shame that the negative rhetoric from the Tories and Labour on our education system is still as prevalent. That is not to say that there is not more work to be done or that everything is perfect—we are having a review, and I agree with Daniel Johnson’s remarks about measuring and taking stock of where we are—but the misinformation and the downplaying of the continuing success of the curriculum for excellence is disappointing.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Does the member agree with the work that Professor Jim Scott has published? He made painstaking efforts to ensure that the evidence that he produced was accurate. I note that the Scottish Government is supporting the motion this evening.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

I understand that Professor Scott carried out a great deal of detailed work. I cannot say for sure whether it is 100 per cent accurate. We can throw statistics around, but I cannot say that for sure. I am more interested in outcomes, and we have a record of successful outcomes, which are far more important than someone criticising curriculum for excellence.

Under the present Scottish Government, the number of young people leaving school with five highers or more has gone up, and last year was the first time ever that 30 per cent of pupils got at least five highers or better—an increase of 22.2 per cent from 2009-10.

That was one of the points that I raised with Professor Jim Scott during his evidence session at the Education and Skills Committee’s review of the senior phase of education. Frankly, he was at a loss to answer it. In relation to a further question from my colleague Jenny Gilruth, however, he said:

“We have a situation in which CFE should be a world-class initiative, and it has the potential to be so. I have debated with a few people in this room what the first committee started with in terms of ... a view of education, and I do not think that any of us disagreed that CFE is other than a good idea.”—[

Official Report


Education and Skills Committee

, 24 April 2019; c 19.]

There are record numbers in higher education, and record numbers of students from deprived areas are going on to further education and achieving qualifications. Indeed, the gap between those from the most and least deprived areas achieving a higher or better is at a record low, having reduced for the eighth consecutive year. We should be celebrating that, instead of talking it down.

The Scottish Government is building on that success and is continuing its dedication to the young people of Scotland by committing to provide a further £750 million during this parliamentary session to raise attainment, including £120 million of pupil equity funding going directly to schools, on top of the £50 million for attainment challenge authorities.

I am proud to say that, although it is to some extent still a work in progress, curriculum for excellence has transformed learning experiences for children and young people across Scotland, and that was precisely the intention. It moves the focus from solely academic attainment, giving greater attention to the capacities that children need to make a success of their lives, with tailored experiences guided by the current and new generation of great teachers in this country so that children can fully achieve their potential.

Under CFE, young people can choose from a broader range of pathways than before. What matters is the qualifications that pupils leave school with. We have a forward-thinking, modern, flexible system, which treats every child as an individual.

The Scottish Government is getting on with the job of improving our education system so that it works for all. Perhaps it is time that, instead of talking down the achievements of teachers and pupils in Scotland, the Opposition parties celebrated them.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I declare a registered interest:

I have a daughter who is a secondary school teacher.

I am delighted to speak in today’s debate, because it gives me the opportunity once again to reiterate my strong belief that education is a major solution to health and welfare issues. The Scottish Government’s commitment at the beginning of the session to have education as its main objective was most welcome. In fact, Nicola Sturgeon went further, stating that we should judge it on the success of its education policy. That was against the backdrop, of course, of the flagship education bill, which is now defunct.

As Liz Smith stated in her opening remarks, the principles that underpin curriculum for excellence—excellence and equity—are the right ones and all parties in the Parliament quite rightly supported them. However, it is the Scottish Government’s implementation of the policy and the measurement of its outcomes that highlight its failure to deliver against those objectives—no matter how hard the Scottish Government has tried to avoid proper scrutiny. The stark reality is that, when measured against the objectives of excellence and equity—especially equity, in my view—the Scottish Government has been shown to be failing significantly.

Despite the protestations of Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney to the contrary, we now know that even their own civil servants told them that subject choices were reducing and that senior students were taking fewer subjects than before. Time and again in the chamber, I have heard the incredible claim from John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon that, somehow, that would not have a negative effect on our children’s education.

However, according to Professor Jim Scott, the effect of reducing S4 options is to force pupils to make their choices for highers in S3, which again reduces their ability to have a wider education base.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

If Mr Whittle thinks that damage is being done to pupils, will he say why we have a record level—93 per cent—of school leavers going on to positive destinations?

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I am just about to come to that.

I was going to layer on top of what I have said the point that the Scottish Government’s continuing erosion of further education places in the college sector means that it is little wonder that the attainment gap between better-off and less well-off pupils continues to grow. It seems that the Scottish Government has an inability to grasp a systems-wide approach to education, which I have to say is not unique to the education portfolio.

In order to aspire, we need to be able to see the goal and the journey that is required to get there. By reducing options in curriculum for excellence and slashing places in colleges, the Scottish Government has created a systems-wide learning deficit. Only last week, I heard from my local college that it is being asked to trim yet more from its budget. The only means of doing so that it has left is compulsory redundancies, which would once again reduce students’ learning opportunities.

Liz Smith has highlighted the deterioration in STEM uptake and the drop in the overall pass rates in mathematics and English, which are core skills. I add that the subjects that are being worst hit by the squeeze on subject choice—mainly art, drama, music, sport and languages—are those that speak directly to the desire for a more holistic and rounded education approach that is central to the core principles of curriculum for excellence. The figures for some of those subjects have dropped by 60 per cent since 2013. Those subjects are also the ones in which the biggest gaps between the haves and the have-nots occur, and they are the subjects in which soft skills—which are so beneficial to other key subjects—are learned. There is a growing chasm in access to such opportunities, which are central to a more rounded education. I think that that point is lost on the cabinet secretary.

We have world-class educators who are ready to deliver to eager young minds. They should have a world-class environment in which to operate, but the Scottish Government has shown itself to be inept at delivering that. The attainment gap is growing—as I think Mr Swinney knows. Perhaps education is not the SNP’s priority after all.

“Judge me on my record”,

Nicola Sturgeon challenged us. Well, we have—and she has failed.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

Yesterday, I attended a conference in Glasgow about Scotland becoming more trauma informed. In a powerful presentation, Dr Warren Larkin quoted a 2014 research article entitled “What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-Course Model of Well-Being”, which said:

“The most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is the child’s emotional health. Next comes the child’s conduct. The least powerful predictor is the child’s intellectual development. This has obvious implications for educational policy.”

I mention that because trauma-informed thinking has an impact on policy here in Scotland, which is why policies such as getting it right for every child, PEF and curriculum for excellence are at the heart of the Government’s approach to making Scotland the best place in which to grow up and learn.

Curriculum for excellence has transformed learning for children and young people across the country. Instead of rigid classroom learning, we now have a curriculum that can be flexible to young people’s strengths and ensure that they reach positive destinations once their school careers are finished. Because of the support for teachers that is provided through the national improvement hub and the fact that, under curriculum for excellence, schools have the freedom to design a set of courses, qualifications and awards between S4 and S6 that is tailored to young people’s needs, the number of courses on offer to pupils has increased.

Just today, in North Lanarkshire, I got to witness at first hand an example of curriculum for excellence in action. It was my pleasure to attend St Andrew’s high school in Coatbridge to talk to pupils in the advanced higher modern studies class about their dissertations. They had some great questions and were clearly thriving in their learning. It was great that pupils from the nearby St Margaret’s, which is in Alex Neil’s Airdrie and Shotts constituency, were also there.

That happens regularly across the council area. It allows pupils to do the courses that they want to do and get access to high-quality teaching. On that note, I thank Ms Gallagher, who set up today’s meeting, and her predecessor Mr Roy, who is now at St Ambrose, for their work in the area. The situation is not new. I remember that, when I was at Coatbridge high school, I wanted to take modern studies, history and geography. To make that happen, I had to travel to Rosehall high school, which is no longer there, for geography. I do not understand why there would be any issue with the pooling of resources in the area.

Closing the attainment gap is at the centre of this Government’s approach to education, and I strongly disagree with the suggestion that we are imposing barriers to pupil success and achievement. The investment in pupil equity funding is designed for areas such as mine. St Andrew’s high school, which I have just talked about, has many children from areas that are high in the Scottish index of multiple deprivation, as does Coatbridge high school, which I visited a couple of weeks ago.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

The member is talking about schools in his constituency. Does he believe that the practice of multilevel teaching and the narrowing of the curriculum so that, in some schools, modern languages are all but disappearing is helping pupil development and attainment?

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

That is not what I am seeing in the schools in my constituency. The four high schools in my constituency are performing really well. The two that I am talking about are in real need of the Government intervention through pupil equity funding, and they are using it well. I will go on to make that point.

Coatbridge high school, which I visited a couple of weeks ago, has produced a programme called bridging the gap, using pupil equity funding, to develop literacy in the school. The Deputy First Minister is due to visit the school soon, and its staff are looking forward to meeting him and telling him about that and other projects. The Government’s motion further commits to the independent review.

This Government is getting round the country and hearing what schools such as Coatbridge high are doing to deliver in difficult times of Tory austerity, as my colleague Clare Adamson mentioned. We are getting on with the day job. We will leave it to others such as the Tories to continue to run down Scottish education.

The Presiding Officer:

We come to closing speeches. I call Iain Gray to wind up for the Labour Party.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

In some ways, this debate is not entirely about the reality of what is happening in our schools, but is also about the Government’s response to some of the problems that have been identified around introduction and implementation of curriculum for excellence. At the heart of that is the review that is mentioned in the Government’s amendment. I want to make it clear that we welcome the review, although Ross Greer made an important point when he talked about the lack of urgency in responses to some problems.

The review was first asked for in Parliament in May. It was agreed to only after the Education and Skills Committee report came out in September, and only today have we heard some more detail about how it will be taken forward. As Daniel Johnson pointed out, we still do not have its remit. Time is moving on, but we have no timeline for when we can expect the review to respond.

Worse than that, the truth is that it took us four years to get to the review, which has been driven by the Education and Skills Committee’s report on the narrowing of the curriculum. It took four years of argument to get the Government to accept that that is a problem. When narrowing of the curriculum was first raised as an issue in Parliament, the Government said that it was not happening. It then resorted to the sophistry of saying that pupils have more choice than ever—which is true, but they get to choose fewer subjects than they used to be able to choose. They might be able to choose from a wider menu, but they can choose fewer subjects.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Gray and I have discussed this in the Education and Skills Committee and he knows that I have offered him a curricular model that completely refutes the statement that he has just made in Parliament. I am surprised that he has reiterated something that I clearly refuted in committee, with evidence to undermine the argument that he is advancing.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

If Mr Swinney is trying to say to me that he showed that pupils in S4 are currently able to choose as many subjects as they used to be able to choose, I say first that I do not recall that, and secondly, that I do not accept that he has evidence that that is the case.

That is not really the argument that he has made today. He has argued today that fewer traditional subjects are being chosen but other courses are available. That might or might not be true. Clare Adamson was right to say that Labour supported the developing the young workforce programme. However, as Liz Smith pointed out, evidence is not available with regard to what choices, in that respect, are being made available to young people.

My worry—Mr Swinney’s intervention rather argues for this—is that, even with all the evidence and the report from the Education and Skills Committee, the Government still does not really accept that there is a problem. I was quite taken aback when I read a report about a fringe meeting at the SNP conference at which Mr Swinney talked about the Education and Skills Committee’s report and said that “the logic” of it risked “alienating” pupils. He said that we should not worry about a narrowing curriculum because it would be “daft” if “old duffers” like him required children to do particular subjects.

Let us stop and think about what he is saying. He is saying that declining exam results, which mean that pupils might not have the skills that they need in science, engineering, computing and modern languages for the jobs of the future, can be shrugged off as just a “daft” concern of “old duffers”. If that is the new philosophy that underlies the Government’s education policy, we are—to be frank—in more trouble than we had realised.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Iain Gray started his speech by saying that

“this debate is not ... about the reality of what is happening in our schools”.

I think that he used those words inadvertently, because he hastily changed direction, although he hit the nail on the head with that remark.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

The reality, of course, is that Mr Swinney is the only person left standing who is trying to argue that we do not have problems in our schools.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

No, I am not. If Mr Gray was to treat with respect the evidence that he heard from all quarters at the Education and Skills Committee, he would accept long-serving and experienced educationists in the Scottish system having refuted the line of argument that he has put forward in Parliament today.

I agree with Daniel Johnson that we have to look at all the evidence. The Conservatives have brought to the chamber today a debate on one piece of evidence. I have marshalled a number of other pieces of evidence that demonstrate the closing of the attainment gap. I demonstrated the closing of the gap at national 5 level, in particular in areas of deprivation, and at higher level—level 6. I was surprised that Mr Greer did not reference that data in his comments in relation to the accusation that the gap is growing.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

If the cabinet secretary is so confident in the data that he cited, I am sure that members on all sides of the chamber would be delighted if he would bring it to a debate before the end of the year, to mark two years since the last time he brought to the chamber a debate on Scottish education.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

We are having a lot of lovely debates about education in the chamber. I love taking part in them.

We could also debate something that Mr Greer did not mention at any point in his entire speech, in which he criticised the impact on educational opportunity of the poverty that has been created by a Tory Government, whose party’s motion he will support tonight. He made absolutely no mention of the Scottish attainment challenge or pupil equity funding, through which this Government is putting resources directly into our schools in order to close the poverty-related attainment gap. That is us trying to clear up the mess that has been created by the Tory Government, aided by its Liberal Democrat allies. For Beatrice Wishart to bemoan, in this Parliament, the reduction in teacher numbers, when her colleagues ushered in austerity in 2010, beggars belief.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Ms Marra will have to forgive me, as I have only four minutes in which to close the debate.

As Daniel Johnson said, it is important to look at all the data in the round, which is why I want to ensure that we take the broadest possible approach to the senior phase review. I was surprised by his comment that

“there has been a paucity of ... analysis” by the Scottish Government. What about the OECD review of broad general education that was published in 2015? We have followed and are pursuing the recommendations in that report to ensure that we address the poverty-related attainment gap.

Through dialogue in due course with the Education and Skills Committee, we will discuss the scope of the review that we will undertake in order to ensure that it is comprehensive.

My last remark is on Alison Harris’s point about choice narrowing. I am afraid that that position is not supported by Liz Smith, who said to me at the Education and Skills Committee that there is more choice. The issue at the heart of the debate is choice that is relevant to the 21st century and the educational opportunities of young people today.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am afraid that I have to close.

As I said, the fundamental question in the review is whether we are providing a curriculum that meets the needs of young people in the 21st century. I believe that we are. I look forward to discussing that with interested parties during the senior phase review.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

This has been an instructive debate. Throughout it, we have seen all the Opposition parties—the Labour Party, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—speaking with one voice in raising, about curriculum for excellence, very serious concerns that reflect the views of experts. The only people who are standing against those concerns are members on the Government front bench and its party’s back benchers, who seem to be saying that everything is fine. They are in denial that there is a serious problem.

The context for the debate is, of course, the findings of Professor Jim Scott, which were summed up very well in Alison Harris’s speech. Professor Scott found that the number of higher passes in S5 have gone down 10 per cent over the past four years, which he said is a reduction that Scotland cannot afford. He found that attainment in national qualification levels 3 to 5 by S4 pupils had dropped by 32.9 per cent—one third—since 2013. He also found that the least able and lower-average learners have suffered to a significantly greater degree than the able learners—in particular, the most able in S4. It should be, in his words,

“a matter of national concern that levels of “zero attainment” have risen and that this has reached over 3%“ which is, in effect, one child in every S1 comprehensive class. By any assessment, that is a damning analysis of the Government’s record in education.

Given that context, I would have thought that the SNP would welcome the debate’s focus on education. Brian Whittle reminded us that, among all the promises that the First Minister has made on the subject of education, she said that

“Education is this Government’s number 1 priority.”

She also said:

“Judge me on my record in education” and that it was her ambition to “close the attainment gap”. However, the real gap that is growing daily is the gap between the SNP’s rhetoric on the issue and the reality.

Professor Jim Scott’s latest paper from this week is a painstaking piece of research into exactly what is happening to attainment in our schools. Although attainment varies across subjects, there are serious concerns about some aspects of literacy and numeracy, much of which has been the focus of the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee over recent months.

We also know that there are serious concerns about subject choice, especially the marked movement away from STEM, languages and social subjects—the very subjects that are crucial not only for a rounded education but for the future success of the Scottish economy, as Iain Gray reminded us. Perhaps worst of all is that the evidence shows that the least-able pupils are losing out most. That is exactly the opposite of what was intended when curriculum for excellence was introduced.

It is not only Professor Jim Scott who has been raising the alarm. It has been raised by business and industry and by members of the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, who published two separate reports on attainment and subject choice, neither of which could have been happy reading for the cabinet secretary.

In addition, his own advisers were, rightly, clearly concerned this summer about some of the trends in this year’s SQA results. When the cabinet secretary says, as he said a few moments ago, that we are using just one piece of evidence in isolation on the issue, he is quite wrong. The evidence goes far beyond that one piece that was mentioned in Professor Jim Scott’s analysis.

What has been the cabinet secretary’s reaction to all that? He is the one who has removed Scotland from some key international tables. He did not carry out the mid-term review of curriculum for excellence, as the OECD requested. He cancelled his flagship education bill, despite it being the primary focus of the programmes for government of 2016 and 2017.

Liz Smith’s speech reminded us that, in the summer, the cabinet secretary told us that the four-year decline in attainment levels in highers was down to “annual variation”. If the cabinet secretary cares to think about it, he will realise that that was quite an extraordinary comment, although it was trumped by his assertion that this year’s SQA results were a “strong set of results”. With the exception of national 5, which showed improvement, that was just spin, as he should know.

The main concern must surely be for the outcomes of pupils who already face barriers. Jim Scott’s evidence shows that, since the introduction of curriculum for excellence, the overall number of pupils leaving school with no qualifications is rising, and that there has been at least a doubling of that rate in 14 out of 32 local authorities. That is a national scandal that tells us all that we need to know about the education record of the Government.

It is disappointing that the cabinet secretary seems, so far, to be in denial. From the response to a freedom of information request that was published this week, we know that his officials told him seven months ago that subject choice had reduced across the entire senior phase, but subsequent to that, both he and the First Minister told Parliament that subject choice had not reduced. He needs to be clear with Parliament about exactly what the facts are.

I hope that in a few moments the Scottish Government will agree to the wording of our motion, which accepts Jim Scott’s conclusions, recognises the “failures in the delivery” of curriculum for excellence, and calls for urgent action.

Too many young people in Scotland are being let down by the Government’s failures in education. Let us ensure that today marks a turning point.