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Curriculum for Excellence

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th November 2019.

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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.