Reform Scotland

Ten tasks for the new education secretary – Lindsay Paterson

Ten tasks for the new education secretary

No-one could envy the multiple challenges faced by the new education secretary in the Scottish government, Jenny Gilruth. Apart from the lingering effects of Covid – when schools were closed, online lessons were intermittent, and social inequalities were magnified – there is also the legacy of years of pent-up policy failures despite the rhetoric of good intentions.

So here are ten tasks that Ms Gilruth might like to consider. These are not an exhaustive list of the challenges, and they are unlikely to be solved before the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2026. But making a significant start on them would signal an administration that was serious about effective policy.

1. Attainment
Scottish school attainment has been declining for a decade and a half. Government ministers have been reluctant to admit this. But if we use the most reliable measures available – from the regular Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), as analysed by researchers at the Education Policy Institute – the dismaying trends are inescapable. In 2006, the year before the SNP came to power, the average attainment of 15-year-olds in Scotland was well-above the international average in numeracy and science, and was the best in the UK in these and in reading. By 2018 (the most recent PISA survey), Scotland was at best average internationally, and was probably behind England in all three domains. Thus we get the starkest task to start with:

Task 1: find ways of reintroducing intellectual rigour into the school curriculum.

2. Standards in national assessments
The trends of attainment shown by Scotland’s own national assessment – run by the Scottish Qualifications Authority – mostly reflect the same decline. The interruption to normal exams caused by Covid has confused the picture since 2020. But in the last pre-Covid year, the disappointing outcomes prompted Ms Gilruth’s predecessor-but-one, John Swinney, to order a special inquiry. For example, of 46 subjects at Higher Grade, the pass rate declined between 2018 and 2019 in 32. For only seven out of the 46 was the pass rate in 2019 higher than in the best year since 2016. These seven made up just 4% of all entries to Higher. 2016 is a relevant baseline because the Highers syllabuses and assessments were revised after 2015. Random fluctuation should lead to about half of the pass rates going up each year, and half going down. That was what normally used to be the case. So something was going wrong.

The conclusions of Mr Swinney’s review suggested what the problems might be. Syllabuses were inadequately stimulating, and learning was insufficiently rigorous. In English, for example, the review concluded that ‘candidates tended to assert rather than analyse’. In Mathematics, performance was undermined by weak algebraic skills and weak numeracy. In French, there were problems with candidates’ grasp of ‘spelling, genders, plurals, accents, adjectival agreement [and] tenses’. In Biology, Chemistry and Physics, ‘many candidates were unable to demonstrate accurate knowledge and understanding of definitions and terminology’.

Ms Gilruth’s advisers will nevertheless tell her that the proportion of all students passing Highers (and the other SQA assessments) is rising, even though the pass rates for individual subjects are stagnating or falling. When set alongside the declining PISA scores, the only reasonable inference is that the assessments are generally becoming easier, encouraging more students to be presented for them. Despite the decline in pass rates, enough of these new students do pass to enable the overall proportions who gain a pass to rise. Hence the second task:

Task 2: place the standards of the national assessments on a more consistently rigorous basis. This will require a thorough revision of syllabuses and of modes of assessment.

3. Assessment
That brings us to what will presumably be the first item in Ms Gilruth’s in-tray, the current review of assessment that was commissioned by her predecessor. Much is wrong with the current modes of assessment. The practice has grown, for example, of candidates’ learning mini-essays by heart, to regurgitate them in the exam room with minimal change. Tests in mathematics and science have become formulaic and predictable. Thus current exams urgently need reform.

At the same time, the assessed course-work – usually done by candidates at home – is open to too many extraneous influences to be valid. Even when parents do not intend to give unfair help to their children, they cannot avoid doing so simply by having family conversations. Out of that comes social inequality. Invigilated exams in school do not suffer from that problem.

Yet the review’s interim report seems to be interested only in reducing the role of exams and reducing the extent to which assessment is externally set by the SQA rather than internally decided by the school. These are important debates, but they miss the main point, which is that assessment ought to be an assessment of knowledge.

In debates about these matters, knowledge is often caricatured as a list of facts. It is not: more important than the facts is the framework of understanding in which they can be embedded. Assessments ought to test that kind of understanding. Some knowledge can only be elicited by lengthy essays or projects or collaborative work. But these forms of assessment have to be made impervious to parental influence. Their validity also now faces a new threat: artificial intelligence (such as ChatGPT), which can instantly produce essays of what appear to be high quality, without any actual contribution from the student. Other kinds of knowledge can be best tested only by an invigilated exam. Unless the review accepts the importance of knowledge as a form of understanding, and investigates the strengths as well as the weaknesses of all forms of assessment, then it will fail.

Task 3: ensure that the review of assessment recommends the best kinds of exams as well as the most valid kinds of assessed course work. From the interim report, this at present seems unlikely.

4. Inequality of attainment
Closing what is usually called the poverty-related attainment gap was described by Nicola Sturgeon as her defining mission. Again, the PISA studies provide the only valid yardstick, and the conclusions are not encouraging. Where inequality has declined since 2006, the main reason has been a fall in the attainment of students from affluent families, not any improvement among those who are socially disadvantaged. Where the affluent have not declined, inequality has risen.

Again, the minister’s advisers will obfuscate. Citing not PISA but the results of school assessment, they will claim that, on some measures, inequality is falling. But that depends on measuring inequality by the spurious Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. This is a measure of whole neighbourhoods, and is far too crude to capture the actual circumstances of individual children. Two thirds of deprived households with children are not in the most deprived areas. One quarter of households with children in deprived areas are not deprived. PISA does not suffer from this confusion, because it measures actual family circumstances, not neighbourhoods.

To reduce inequality, the Scottish government can build on policies that are already in place. The Scottish child payments have a real chance of reducing poverty. The same is true of free school meals. But some of the approach to poverty has to be more specifically about education. The SNP promised in its 2021 manifesto to provide laptops to every school pupil. The digital inequalities revealed by the Covid disruption shows that fulfilling that promise ought to be a central feature of education policy.

Task 4: keep the promise on laptops, despite budget cuts.

5. Narrowing of curriculum
Pupils have an increasingly restricted choice of subjects available in the middle years of secondary school. With the old Standard Grade (which came to an end in 2013), it was normal for schools to require most pupils to take eight subjects in the fourth year of secondary school: for example, in 2002, 70% sat eight or more in fourth year, and 88% sat seven or more. That is still normal in the independent schools. But more than half of local-authority schools now restrict the choice to five or six subjects, and only 11% allow eight subjects: in contrast, 93% of schools allowed eight subjects two decades ago. Not since the 1970s has such a low proportion of pupils had access to a broad curriculum in fourth year. Research by Dr Marina Shapira, Professor Mark Priestley and colleagues at Stirling University shows that in schools where the choice is most restricted, the decline in PISA scores has been greatest.

The reason why this narrowing has happened is the extension of what is called ‘broad general education’ into the third year of secondary school, thus reducing the time available to study subjects that lead to assessment at the end of fourth year. No coherent rationale has ever been offered for this new structure. Ironically, therefore, an apparent extension of breadth has actually led to its contraction at the level that keep students’ choices open for more advanced courses. This is an example of a more general absence of thought-through planning in policy-making: the problem is an unintended consequence rather than a deliberate decision.

The new curriculum – which has been in place for over a decade now – is in general fragmented and insufficiently stimulating. It was introduced to make learning more enjoyable, to focus on skills, and to encourage pupils to make links between subjects. These are admirable aims, but not if they neglect rigour and knowledge (in the sense of understanding) as this curriculum does.

Another revolution would leave teachers demoralised if it was imposed from above. So what should happen now is imaginative experiment. Schools that want to explore better ways forward should be encouraged to do so. There are already many schools that are trying to keep hold of a knowledge-based curriculum, despite the official push in the other direction. These experiments should be strongly supported. For example, networks should be encouraged across the country where innovative schools can share experiences independently of the government, of local authorities and of inspectors. These experiments must then be properly evaluated so that the whole system can learn from them.

Task 5: reinstate the requirement for a broad curriculum up to age 16, and encourage and evaluate experiments in reinstating the place of knowledge at the heart of the curriculum.

6. Foundation apprenticeships
Then there is what happens beyond school. For pupils who are not likely to go onto higher education, one of the better policies of the present Scottish government has been the Foundation Apprenticeships. These offer an opportunity for students to combine core school courses with vocational study at a local college. They also have a placement at a local business. From a small start in 2016 with only a few hundred pupils, the take-up grew ten-fold to 3,500 in 2019, falling back to 3,000 in the Covid-struck 2020.

The most glaring problem is that this initiative is tiny. 3,500 apprentices may seem a lot. But, with two thirds of them taking the course over two years, they amount to a mere 5% of all school leavers. What’s more, half of them don’t fully complete the course.

Task 6: expand the Foundation Apprenticeships, and bring far more employers on board as partners in their provision.

7. College funding
If these Apprenticeships are among the more commendable policies of this government, the funding of local colleges has been among their more deplorable. Funding has tried to push students into full-time courses of higher education in the colleges, and away from part-time courses of the kind that can only be run in conjunction with local employers. The upshot is stark. In 2009, there were 340k student enrolments in courses of part-time further education. By 2015, this had fallen to 185k, and the recovery since then has only been to 211k. This is a massive loss of opportunity that has a particular impact on students in the most socially disadvantaged families.

Task 7: reverse the cuts to part-time further education, again working closely with local employers.

8. Access to university
The whole Scottish political class, and almost every journalist from outside Scotland, thinks that the jewel in the crown of Scottish educational policy is nominally ‘free’ university undergraduate education for Scottish students. When pushed to defend this, they will claim that it reduces inequality of access. In her resignation speech, Nicola Sturgeon cited as one of her successes the rise in university entrance by people from the most deprived neighbourhoods.

This again suffers from the problem of measuring deprivation by neighbourhood (see Task 4). There is evidence that universities have become adept at cherry-picking the non-disadvantaged minority in disadvantaged areas. But even using this kind of measure, the conclusion is not great: Scottish students from deprived neighbourhoods are still notably less likely to get to university than similar students in England (in 2020, 16% of such 18-year-olds against 25%). Most of the deficit is made up by higher-education courses at local colleges, but these are nearly all at diploma or certificate level – valuable in themselves, but not of the same status as degrees, and not having the same prospects of professional employment.

One way of resolving this is to strengthen the paths from colleges to universities, so-called ‘articulation’. Good work is already being done in this respect, but much more is needed. If widening access is truly to be taken seriously, then articulation ought to be at the centre of higher-education policy, and ought to include all the universities, not only the newer universities that have always been better at doing this than the older ones.

Task 8: significantly expand the routes by which graduates from college diplomas can transfer to universities in order to complete a degree.

9. Cap on places at university
A baleful consequence of the no-fees policy is a cap on the number of university places for Scottish students (in order to ensure that demand does not overwhelm the government budget for this). The perverse consequence is that, as the number of Scottish school leavers who pass enough Highers to enter university has expanded, their opportunity to do so has been restricted by this deliberate government policy. An investigation by Reform Scotland has shown that, in the past 15 years, ‘there has been a 56% increase in applicants, but an 84% increase in the number refused entry’.

Task 9: remove the cap. If that can’t be done within budget, then the politically challenging task will have to be faced of reintroducing fees to be paid (as in the rest of the UK) in retrospect when a graduate is earning above the threshold for repaying the student loan.

10. Data
The final task is to gather better evidence. The statistical evidence about students’ experience of Scottish school education is poorer now that at any time in the past three quarters of a century. In particular, decisions by the SNP government and its predecessor before 2007 have lost four important sources. One was the Scottish Survey of Achievement, which was a survey of attainment in literacy, numeracy and science at various stages in primary school and early secondary. The second was the internationally famous series of surveys of school leavers that stretched back to the 1950s. The third and fourth were Scottish participation in international surveys of literacy and of numeracy and science, which provided evidence on a wider range of ages than PISA (which is a survey only of 15-year-olds). It has been reported that Scotland would be re-joining these international surveys, a belated decision that is very much to be welcomed. But the decade and a half of their absence can never be recovered. All of these surveys used to provide invaluable evidence on rates of progress through the school years, on social inequalities of progress and attainment, and on students’ attitudes to school and aspirations for their future lives. Only large surveys – of several thousand pupils at several school stages – can give evidence about small social groups, such as minority ethnic groups.

Task 10: reinstate surveys of progress through the education system, and confirm the decision to re-join the main international surveys.

Lindsay Paterson is emeritus professor of education policy, Edinburgh University