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”.