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Scotland’s SNP ‘Learner Journey’ – Sarah Atkin

Last week-end I read of yet another case of Scotland seeming to be ‘asleep at the wheel’ (TESS ‘Schools key to cracking nation’s coding shortage.) Reducing computing teachers in our schools by 25% over a decade when technology has taken over our lives and the digital sector is already a massive area for jobs growth is more than ‘not smart’ – it’s a near dereliction of duty.

Education determines the future prospects of any country. Like many, I ask myself, is there any aspect of the the SNP’s ‘learner journey’ that is delivering for the next generation?

Pre-school education. The numbers of GTCS teachers in the Nursery sector has declined by 29% in a decade to just one per 84 pupils in Scotland. Every piece of evidence tells us that teacher input in the early years, particularly for poorer and/or less able children is essential if we are serious about social justice and economic prosperity.

Primary education. The 2014 Scottish Survey of Achievement showed declining literacy rates in our schools. Less widely reported was the worryingly smaller ‘pool’ of high-end achievers – those working ‘very well’ or ‘beyond’ the expected level (a level I assume to be a baseline expectation.) At the end of P7 56% of pupils may have been working ‘very well’ at the expected level in reading but none were recorded as working beyond it. 23% were working ‘very well’ at the expected level for writing; listening and talking and (respectively) just 5% and 8% ‘beyond it’. The 2013 Numeracy survey saw just 26% of P7 pupils performing ‘very well’ at the expected level with none recorded to be working beyond it.

Secondary. The historic tenet of Scottish education – breadth – has all but disappeared past S3 in much of Scotland with subjects narrowing to just 6 in S4. This, ironically coincides with an era when broadly educated, skilled and creative young adults are the most likely to prosper in current and future growth sectors – like the digital sector.

The commitment to the comprehensive principle has also been undermined as the new qualifications have near excluded the less academically able from the exam system altogether.

Further Education colleges. Since 2007 college budgets have been slashed and student numbers have fallen by over 150,000. The FE sector provides for post-school practical education and skills training and is also vital for adults needing to upgrade their skills in search of new employment opportunities.

Universities: the % of Scots domiciled undergraduates at our top Universities is falling. The figure at Edinburgh University last year was 40.5% (down from 44%) and at Glasgow University 63% (down 10% in a single year.) Funded/free places are ‘capped’ and our pupils have to compete with rising applications from the elite of the (non UK) EU. Universities cannot discriminate so the statistics suggest that bright young Scots who are missing out.

Student Grants: tuition remains free for all Scots educated (including the wealthy) but grants for poorer students were drastically cut in 2012. By 2014 student loans had doubled.

In 2014/15 nearly 20,000 of Scotland’s least well-off students took out loans averaging nearly £5,900 a year to fund their living costs compared with just 1,900 for better off families. Perversely, students from poorer families in Scotland have higher debt burdens than those from wealthy families.

By any measure the above is a terrible but also intellectually incoherent legacy. Where’s the strategy? It would appear the massive potential of young people from all backgrounds and abilities is being sold short.

So, what’s to be done?

Firstly, it makes absolutely no educational or economic sense to have imposed stringent cuts on local government which is seeing teaching posts disappear, piece-meal from schools. How on earth is that going to close the attainment gap or raise standards?

Second, Kezia Dugdale’s plan to invest additional money to all primary aged pupils from deprived backgrounds, direct to schools, makes both practical and intellectual sense. The OECD said as far back as 2007 that the socio/economic attainment gap in Scottish education exists as much within schools as between them. This policy ensures the challenge to raise the attainment of the under privileged is one all schools share. Also, it places trust in those best placed to have an impact – teachers.

For the longer term ‘raising attainment’ just isn’t ambitious enough. Scotland has to ‘step up’ a gear. We need to transform our education system and it is only great teachers and school leaders who can do this for us. Scotland takes pride in its commitment to maintaining a high quality teaching profession. We know we have some fantastic teachers and we know our schools have the capacity to deliver – if we let them. Yes, plainly there has to be a coherent national strategy for education with local planning / strategic input, accountability and high expectations to back it up. Bureaucracy has its place. Surely, though bureaucracy should only exist to serve the interests of our educators – not to inhibit or control them.

Sarah Atkin is a voluntary contributor to the ‘Commission on School Reform’ and a Scottish Labour Regional List candidate for the Highlands and Islands.