The Scottish Conservatives’ recent policy paper on education, Restore our Schools, is welcome as a sign that any political party is taking education seriously by concentrating on the details while also thinking about the general direction. Much debate about education in Scotland consists of vague aspirations combined with sound-bite responses to the latest crisis.
Some aspects of the paper can be unequivocally welcomed, such as its recognition of the need for better statistical data on Scottish education and the commitment to rejoin all the major international surveys of pupil attainment. On that, it is true, there has to be thinking on how to deal with the entrenched resistance to objective evidence in the Scottish educational establishment, and what can, sadly, only be described as the innumeracy of far too many senior officials in Scottish government at all levels. But we can only hope that any Conservative influence on government will come with some political determination to insist that elected politicians matter more than bureaucrats.
Nevertheless, the Conservatives’ thinking will need to become rather more rigorous if it is to form the basis of practicable policy. Five topics in the paper can illustrate this, along with a sixth that ought to be there but isn’t.
The paper proposes 3,000 extra teachers, on the grounds that there are about that many fewer teachers now than in 2007 – just over 52k now compared to around 55k then. But this needs to be analysed more carefully. In fact, the number of primary teachers now (25k) is more than a thousand greater than in 2007, while the secondary-school number has fallen from 26.5k to 23.5k. (There’s also been a fall in the number of pre-school teachers.) The number of teachers is largely driven by forecasts of the number of pupils, which are generally accurate and timely. Since 2007, pupil numbers have risen at primary and fallen at secondary. So the average pupil-teacher ratio has remained quite stable – at primary, 15.8 in 2007 and 15.9 now; at secondary, 11.6 and 12.4.
There’s nothing wrong with making a case for more teachers – quite the opposite. But the basis needs to be relevant calculations. When the Conservative’s paper says that having fewer teachers ‘means larger class sizes and individual pupils not being given the attention that they deserve’, they are ignoring the changes in pupil numbers.
Science in primary schools
The paper proposed a specialist ‘STEM teacher’ in each primary school. This is laudable so far as it goes, although there is no published information on how many such teachers there currently are. (For example, the topic is not mentioned in the annual governmental reports of STEM Strategy for Education and Training in Scotland.) The problem is the undifferentiated concept of ‘Science, technology, engineering and mathematics’. The most recent information we have on primary teachers’ knowledge of these topics is more than a decade old, but is probably still relevant because at least about two thirds of current teachers will have been in post then. Teachers were more comfortable with mathematics than with natural science, and more comfortable with biology than with chemistry or physics. So the question has to be asked, but the Conservatives don’t ask it: what kind of science do we want in primary? Curriculum for Excellence’s scientific strands for primary are not really a proper basis for science at all, being at best merely encouraging children to ask the questions that are precursors to scientific knowledge. There is hardly any point in placing a science teacher in every school if all they end up doing is organising nature walks. There has to be a proper scientific curriculum, which has to start with scientific knowledge. We come back to this point about knowledge below.
The Conservative paper is on firmer ground in its imaginative proposal of a national programme of tutors. These would work with children and families to supplement what happens in the classroom while also liaising closely with the class teacher. There is firm evidence that this would be effective, and indeed that is why the government in England has funded the Educational Endowment Foundation to run a National Tutoring Programme as one response to the loss of learning that was caused by the Covid closures. Publicly funded tutors would also help to address the inequity that arises because only quite wealthy families can afford to pay for tutors, whether during the present health emergency or normally. The one element lacking from this proposal is any assessment of where these tutors would come from. In normal circumstance, as distinct from the Covid emergency, they can’t all be recruited from the ranks of trainee teachers (who are, after all, training) and supply teachers (whose main role is supply). The Conservatives will also have to face up to the entrenched opposition to any such scheme by the educational establishment (such as the GTC).
The most eye-catching proposal from the Conservatives is to provide free breakfasts (as well as free lunches) for every child in primary school. This proposal seems to have been borrowed from recent Conservative manifestos in England, but also to have learnt some lessons from these about affordability, taking proper account of uptake, staffing levels, and physical space. The Scottish proposals estimate an annual cost of £20m, which is consistent with the source it cites (an evaluation by the Education Data Lab) if uptake is just 20% of all pupils. But such a low response would barely include every child living in poverty (as estimated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), and would not cover the projected quarter or more in poverty by the end of the next session of the Scottish parliament. The proposal also has nothing to say about what happens in the school holidays, and yet there is already a Scottish government scheme to provide free lunch in the summer holiday to children who would normally get free school lunch. Moreover, if only poor children were to receive breakfast in school, free breakfast would become as invidious as free school meals used to be. In any case, children would be likely to want to eat breakfast with groups of friends, some in poverty, some not. None of this is an argument against the proposal for free breakfast, but it does seem that the policy has not yet been fully thought through.
The paper’s proposal for a properly independent inspectorate is bold and cogent. But we’ve been there before. After the previous exams fiasco (of the year 2000, not the most recent one), separating inspection from policy advice was a core part of how the then Scottish Executive responded, with cross-party agreement in the Scottish parliament’s education committee. That lasted for a few years, but the inspectorate wormed its way back into the heart of policy-making when the present Scottish government merged it with the former Learning and Teaching Scotland to create Education Scotland in 2011. From that position of unchallenged power, the inspectors then moulded Curriculum for Excellence and all the attendant changes to examinations and teacher training that have brought Scottish education to its current mediocre state. These points of course reinforce the Conservatives’ new ideas about the inspectorate, but they also do indicate that the task will not be easy. School inspectors are not like, say, inspectors of environmental standards. They are at present far more fundamental to policy. Making the inspectorate independent is then not only a matter of getting independent evidence on schools. It’s also a matter of keeping the inspectors at arms’ length. I’m not convinced that the Conservatives realise what a monumental battle that will be.
Almost everything in the Conservatives’ paper assumes that we want our pupils to acquire knowledge, and yet the topic is addressed only in an aside that doesn’t even mention knowledge, in the non-committal note that ‘academics and professionals have stated that Curriculum for Excellence is a flawed education reform that has led to declining standards across the board for Scottish education’. The paper does not say whether Conservatives agree with that critique. There are many mentions of the fashionable word ‘skills’, but no recognition that skills depend on knowledge.
On the question of knowledge, the paper is thus not only an inadequate response to the problems of the Scottish curriculum, but also a retreat from the Scottish Conservative’s New Blueprint for the Curriculum for Excellence where the importance of knowledge was recognised and the failure of Curriculum for Excellence in that respect was accepted. Merely deferring a decision on this, as the paper does, until after the forthcoming OECD review of Scottish education – when the OECD itself has been one of the main sources of the current curriculum – is irresponsible.
In summary, while individual proposals in the new Conservative paper are welcome so far as they go, even though they mostly need more work, the fundamental failure is a grave disappointment that the party seems to be moving away from what was its emerging firm commitment to a properly knowledge-based curriculum. Other parties may take up the challenge, and Reform Scotland will analyse their proposals too, but on curriculum reform the evidence from this paper is that the Conservatives are no longer leading the debate.
Lindsay Paterson is Professor of education policy at Edinburgh University