Curriculum for Excellence (Subject Choice)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

1. Does the First Minister now accept that there has been a decline in the choice of subjects taken and achieved since the curriculum for excellence was introduced?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

No, I do not. As we have pointed out when we have had previous exchanges on this, we have a three-year senior phase—which is, of course, going to be subject to a review. In fact, I believe that the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will write to the Education and Skills Committee today giving it the opportunity to comment on the remit for that review.

There is a wide variety of choices available to young people in our schools. As I have often said before, we should look to judge our education system on the results and qualifications—the outcomes, in other words—that young people are leaving school with. A higher proportion of young people are now leaving school with a level 5 qualification; that is true for those who have one, two, three, four, five, six or seven passes. When we look at highers—at level 6 qualifications—the same picture emerges: a higher proportion of young people are leaving with those qualifications.

Those are the outcomes from our education system. I know that that does not chime with the picture of our education system that the Conservatives want to paint, but it happens to be the reality.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

There was me so full of hope after the contribution from the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills in the chamber yesterday. I should have known that denial would be the First Minister’s mantra.

Here is what the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, told the Education and Skills Committee in May:

“I do not think that there has been ... a narrowing of choice”.—[

Official Report

,

Education and Skills Committee

, 29 May 2019; c 15.]

In June, the First Minister told members in the chamber the same thing, brushing off concerns as lacking any evidence.

This week, however, we learned the truth. Now we discover that, just before those claims were made, civil servants confirmed to Government ministers that:

“A range of data and information confirms that there are, on average, fewer subjects taken by pupils now than was the case prior to the introduction of ... the new qualifications.”

In May, the First Minister was told that this was an issue, as specified in that quote. In June, she told us that it was not. Why did the First Minister and her education secretary mislead the Parliament?

The First Minister:

As Jackson Carlaw knows—or should know if he understands the information that he is putting forward—that is not the case. There is a wider choice available to young people today, and that is borne out by the statistics that I have already given in the chamber.

Whether we look at level 5 or level 6 qualifications, we see that a higher percentage of young people are leaving school with qualifications. There is not just a higher percentage leaving with one level 5 or level 6 qualification; the percentage has increased for pupils leaving with two and three qualifications, right through to seven qualifications. That simply does not chime with the picture that Jackson Carlaw wants to paint of our education system, or indeed of the achievements of young people.

In fact, I saw Michael Gove tweeting on that point yesterday, which was interesting, given that he was formerly Secretary of State for Education in England. The Sutton Trust looked at this issue in England recently.

Jackson Carlaw might want to hear about that. Contrary to what he says about Scotland, he is more on the money if we look at the education system in England. A survey of more than 1,600 teachers found that, because of Tory funding cuts, 47 per cent of school leavers had to cut back on subject choices.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

There was denial about Aberdeen last week, and there is denial about education this week. Nicola Sturgeon likes to argue that it does not matter how many subjects a child studies at any age. Her claim has been that only the number of qualifications matters. Unfortunately for her, despite what she has just said, her civil servants also looked at that claim. They found that, before curriculum for excellence was introduced, on average, pupils used to leave school with 10 qualifications at level 5; now, they leave with eight. Even on her preferred measure, she is failing. She knew that full well the previous time she made that claim in Parliament. I realise that numeracy standards might have slipped, but can the First Minister remind us—is 10 subjects achieved more or fewer than eight subjects achieved?

The First Minister:

Perhaps Jackson Carlaw should have spoken to his education spokesperson. When the Education and Skills Committee discussed that recently, Liz Smith said that young people today have more choice than they used to have in days gone by—[

Interruption

.]

The First Minister:

Performance at levels 5 and 6 has improved. More young people are obtaining vocational qualifications now than ever before. In 2012, 25,000 skill-based qualifications were achieved; today, that figure is 54,000. Record numbers of school leavers are in work, training or study. That is the reality of our education system. If we add the fact that, whether at level 5 or 6, the attainment gap is also narrowing, people can see how wide of the mark Jackson Carlaw is.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

It is worth recalling that, when she came to office, she accepted that there was a problem with Scottish education.

Members:

She?

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

When the First Minister came to office, she accepted that there was a problem with Scottish education. The First Minister had the good will and support of this Parliament to grasp the issue. Education was to be her “number 1 priority”. Instead, and again today, she retreated to her comfort zone of spin and denial.

Scotland faces a choice. We could be honest about the challenges that face education. We could focus on what matters and redouble our efforts to restore Scotland’s schools to their rightful reputation for providing a broad education, or we could hope that hosting a march and shouting into a megaphone will magic Scotland’s problems away.

After a decade of division, is it not time that the First Minister put Scotland’s schools first?

The First Minister:

I am not sure why Jackson Carlaw chose to end that question with a reference to the division that the Tories have caused over Brexit, but we will leave that to one side.

He wants to talk about the period since I became First Minister. Let us do that. Let us put to one side the fact that there are more than 1,000 more teachers in our schools now than there were when I became First Minister.

Let us look at higher passes and level 6 qualifications. I became First Minister at the end of 2014. In 2013-14, 58 per cent of young people left school with one or more higher pass. Today, that figure is more than 62 per cent. In 2013-14, 48.6 per cent left with two passes or more. Today, that figure is 52.4 per cent. Let us go to the other end of the scale. In 2013-14, 8.3 per cent of young people left with seven higher passes or more. Today, that figure is 9.6 per cent. The attainment gap for level 6 qualifications is at a record low. That is the record of this Government. It stands in marked contrast to that of our predecessors and it stands in even starker contrast to the record of the Tory Government at Westminster.