Holyrood is failing the children of Scotland

ronnie mcgowanRonnie McGowan has been teaching maths since 1976. He says the record of Scottish education since the formation of the Scottish Parliament is damning, and the latest PISA figures only confirm a long-term trend.


Holyrood is failing the children of Scotland. A parliament with powers to shape and drive forward education policy is in danger of casting adrift a generation of young people who are not being best served to compete for access to jobs and further education. A First Minister who asks to be judged on education must live with the consequences – the same First Minister who enjoyed a good education courtesy of Strathclyde Regional Council even although they had to battle fiercely with the force of her inspiration, Margaret Thatcher. It increasingly looks as if social justice is not the First Minister’s strong suit.

The recently published Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures comparing Scottish education with the rest of the world are a damning comment on the effectiveness of policy making by every political party at Holyrood; they have all been in power in one form or another, but politics in the ‘selfie’ age demands the current administration at Holyrood remains in the frame, under intense scrutiny. There have been three education ministers inside two years which hardly suggests a coherent plan at the core of this revolving door department. Is there someone else already eyeing up the brief? Derek McKay springs to mind.

What the international comparisons show is a serious deterioration in basic skills over a period of time exactly matching the period Holyrood has been functioning – or in the case of education, malfunctioning. The BBC graph below is clear evidence that there is no need to compare results with any other country, the sharp decline in performance across maths, reading and science speaks volumes and is illustrative of our own backyard. John Swinney, without any hint of irony, has said the figures for Scotland “do not make comfortable reading”. Crisis, what crisis?


This SNP minority government would not have been unaware of the tsunami of criticism after publication of the recent data. They had a year’s notice after all, having commissioned a report Improving Schools in Scotland: an OECD Perspective, published in December 2015.

Contrary to John Swinney’s complacent comment that the Curriculum for Excellence was the right approach for Scotland, the OECD 2015 report gave a more nuanced opinion. They offered that Curriculum for Excellence was at a “watershed” and gave three scenarios of what this meant, one being Curriculum for Excellence was not in “immediate danger of unravelling” but they said the potential for such a disaster was imaginable, while adding that a “febrile political environment” may yet rock Curriculum for Excellence. These are deeply worrying, embarrassing and humiliating words from the OECD, exposing the harsh truth behind this government’s seemingly rudderless education direction.

The international team of observers were under no illusions and noted a political culture at Holyrood which has taken its eye off the ball, at the expense of the education ambitions of Scotland’s children. This is of no concern to a First Minister who boasts ‘independence transcends’, while disregarding the damage caused by this dogma. Holyrood has become a shrill echo chamber of endless threats of constitutional upheaval with little inclination to deal with bread and butter issues. John Swinney and the SNP have to shoulder the responsibility for driving this febrile atmosphere. It is hardly good enough; education unravelling once in a generation is an unravelling once too often. Every MSP should look in the mirror and ask if this is a legacy to be proud of.

Since 2003, trends for Scotland have also shown the proportion of low achievers in mathematics increased while contrariwise the proportions of high achievers declined. The OECD found there was a lack of any objective evaluation of the education reforms, which is a serious charge but not surprising as power and decision making becomes more centralised and every thread of policy is processed through the conduit of the SNP’s propaganda unit which surrounds Bute House.

There has been no objective analysis of why there has been this dramatic dip in the three core subjects where the deterioration pre-dates the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate has been disappeared.

The above graph starts in the year 2000, coinciding with the emergence of the Holyrood parliament, and brings us up to the present day; a span characterised as the ‘febrile era’. This period saw the demise of the influential “middle” of strong regional councils. Also around the millennium another important reform was taking shape in education, namely ‘Higher Still’ which for some pupils presented the opportunity to gain an exit qualification comparable to the orthodox Standard Grade they may not have attained at the age of 16 years.

Over time schools began to adopt the Higher Still Intermediate 2 course as an alternative to sitting Standard Grade (with the same tariff for university entrance) because it was perceived as an easier more predictable exam – in maths this proved to be the case. The disintegration of the Assessment for All philosophy established in the 1970s was now in motion, and with it a consistent standard across local authorities. We have now reached the point where it is possible to leave school at the statutory leaving age without having sat a National exam. Little wonder standards are plummeting.

The OECD has advised the Scottish government to be bold in re-launching the narrative of Curriculum for Excellence and a start, of sorts, has been made. Mr. Swinney established a working group called ‘Making Maths Count’ which published a list of recommendations now circulating throughout schools. This group, consisting of the various bodies which make up the “middle” as described in the 2015 OECD report, Local Authorities working with collegiate interests, suggested more clarity in cut-off scores for internal school unit assessments. But now it seems some of those unit assessments will end completely in the near future with no formal benchmark of progress.

Are parents of pupils following these courses aware of this? Or is there now a serious failure of communications at the heart of government in Scotland which may lead once more to the crumbling of confidence in the teaching profession, and worse still a minister unable to stamp his authority, making no impact on the falling attainment levels? The working group charged with the responsibility of looking at aspects that would hopefully transform Scotland into a maths positive nation have tried to raise the ambitions and aspirations for Initial Teacher Education by suggesting beefing up the entrance maths qualifications for trainee primary school teachers. It remains to be seen whether this bold suggestion is taken on by the Scottish Government.

Just when they thought things could hardly get any worse, more damning figures were released last week. The expected levels of numeracy from primary 1 to primary 7 has fallen by 16%, which will just about feed into the next set of PISA results in four years’ time. Never was there a greater need for a less ‘febrile’ approach to politics.

Perhaps a long period of settled calm and well-grounded policy making is in order; should Holyrood fail to deliver then the people of Scotland may become increasingly cynical about the purpose of an expensive parliament that continues to fail our young people, who deserve much better. As the New Year bells for 2017 ring out, the clock is already ticking on Holyrood.

Related Posts

41 thoughts on “Holyrood is failing the children of Scotland

  1. Would be interesting to understand the “lag time” of educational reforms and how they impact on this sort of outcome measurement. As I understand it the PISA results just released are based on 15 year olds? But some educational reforms have been brought in from primary age, and some at different stages of secondary education. So when have significant reforms been brought in and what were their effects on outcomes – has anyone done such a mapping?

    1. OECD picked up on the lack of a robust independent objective methodology for measuring the impact of reforms. Education Scotland claim to be “delivering excellence and equity in Scottish education” but there is no published research to back up that claim Education Scotland is too close to the Scottish Government to be regarded as an independent body – it’s a mouthpiece for the government.

      When the two reforms of the 70’s Munn and Dunning [Curriculum and Assessment] eventually came on stream in the mid-80’s they offered a well defined route through secondary education – there was evidence that the quite radical idea of ‘Assessment for All’ was having a positive impact on closing the attainment gap – why Standard Grade was abandoned is one question the politicians would have to answer – but nothing as socially progressive has ever replaced it.

      The ‘Higher Still’ [mid 90’s] reform was a good effort to give pupils who didn’t achieve their potential after 4 years at secondary school, another chance to gain a creditable qualification at the end of 5th. year – however over time starting at the turn of the century it became an attractive substitute for Standard Grade – again this was an insidious erosion which took place because of the lack of political leadership from the centre. And of course by this time regional councils were gone and any coherent vision of what education should look like in Scotland was evaporating.
      There has undoubtedly been a lack of political leadership in education over the past 16 years.

      At least the SNP commissioned the 2015 OECD report but they have squandered the opportunity to act boldly on its recommendations – they could have initiated a national debate and convention to explore a way forward garnering the skills and knowledge of those in education but what did they do? Wasted valuable energy on their own useless National Survey the results of which won’t be made public.

      The danger is the SNP administration withdraw from the PISA survey under the guise that they have acted and steps taken to introduce new assessment/benchmark procedures in schools – we would then have to take them at their word as to the state of basic skills in Scottish Schools.

      It is a complete mystery to me as to why it has come to pass that pupils can now leave statutory education without having sat a nationally moderated exam – that is a highly worrying development.

      1. Pupils have been able to “leave statutory education without having sat a nationally moderated exam” since the introduction of Higher Still. There’s nothing new in this.

        1. Falkirk1298

          Standard Grade was still available until 2013 and Intermediate 1 and 2 until 2015 so it is a new development that there are children who may exit compulsory education without having sat an exam i.e. National 4 which is not part of the exam diet in May.

          1. You are correct that Standard Grade had the advantage of national exams at all three levels that pupils could sit. Unfortunately Access 1,2 and 3 had Unit Assessments only and no national exam, undermining their value in the eyes of parents, pupils and employers.

        2. “Unfortunately Access 1,2 and 3 had Unit Assessments only and no national exam, undermining their value in the eyes of parents, pupils and employers.”

          Why was that unfortunate? There were and are very good reasons why Acc 1, 2 and 3 and now Nat 1, 2 and 3 are internally assessed.

          Nat 4 should be examined though.

          1. I have taught the Access courses – but the clue is in the name.

            We agree wholeheartedly on Nat 4 – there should be an exam and steps should be taken to rectify that error.

      2. “I have taught the Access courses – but the clue is in the name.”

        Eh? Care to expand? I’m not sure you know what you’re talking about.

    2. Who would you trust to do such a mapping without the political spin? Who within the UK is actually genuinely politically impartial enough to be trusted to do such a mapping accurately and without political favour?

  2. Seems to be failing the children of Wales even more. Oh no wait Hollyrood isnt responsible for Wales.
    I hope we’re not going to pretend that PISA isnt a Tory Government quango like the OBR and IFS? And that the figures should be taken with a political of political salt.
    Lets not go down the road of pretending these quangos are impartial it insults everybodies intelligence.

    1. For the second time, Mike, PISA is an international study run by the OECD. It can’t be blamed on “Tories” or any of your usual excuses.

      1. I knew it. You cant resist holding back the bullshit. Each country that participates in the OECD uses their own internal quangos to compile and list the Data which they present to the OECD for distribution.
        PISA is no more free of UK Government influence than the OBR and IFS is.
        So what excuse is Labour using in Wales Duncan?
        Look at the data between 2012 and 2015. You don’t get a drop like that unless you go around the schools and assassinate all the 15 year olds.
        I can accept a gradual decline over a period of a decade but I cant accept the over the cliff drop in 3 years. No policy or ideology was implemented in the period to justify that drop so how did it happen?
        A piece of pathetic transparent party political shenanagans by the Tories.
        Just like they do with GERS.

        1. Mike I’m a parent. I don’t care to read your useless excuses for a Department that seems to have a revolving door on the Minister’s Office. I know how children are falling through the cracks. I know how over worked teachers are. It’s a huge pity that you can’t see past your hero worship to care about Scottish children’s education.

          1. Except its all relative. There will always be children who fall through the cracks because no system or policy or effort can be 100%.
            The SNP are in Government because most people trust them to make the best effort out of the choices available.
            Labour have EARNED their 3rd place by their miserable track record and the Conservatives? Well Jesus Christ they would privatise all schooling if they could get away with it.
            The present Scottish Government still has to deal with the mess the previous administration left when they failed to build enough schools and the ones they did build they paid for via PFI and PPP. A debt that will take decades to pay off and will bleed an already tight and ever reducing budget as a result.
            Of course it doesn’t help when Labour in Westminster keep abstaining or voting to allow the UK Government to reduce the Scottish budget every year.
            That’s not hero worship that’s being aware of the reality.
            A reality Labour refuses to acknowledge because as Andy pointed out on one of his ranting contributions within Labour the priority is all about how best to serve Labour across the UK not the people of Scotland.

        2. Mike,
          you should bear in mind that the Scottish government has full autonomy over education so it is unlikely that the UK government had any input on the Scottish figures in relation to the PISA data. Not even John Swinney is claiming a UK conspiracy!

          I agree the fall between 2012 and 2015 is alarming as is the fall between 2000 and 2006 and responsibility for evaluating these figures lies with the government of the day, irrespective of which political party is in power.

          One of the main points the OECD made in the 2015 report was that there wasn’t any robust evaluation in place to find out what is going on – there still isn’t any detailed plans for this at the moment as far as I know.

          The other scathing phrase the OECD used was “febrile political environment” [page 100 OECD 2015] – this type of wording is most unusual in a report on educational matters and I can only assume it was used because the observers found this a significant influence on what they were observing and they did relate this to the “watershed” stage Curriculum for Excellence is at. It’s safe to say that reports like this often use understated language and criticism especially of the political culture they encounter – so I find that they publicly use such a phrase as highly significant and for the government quite a stinging assessment. I’ve never seen comment like that before – it may be the fevered run up to the 2014 referendum had an effect, whether there is a causal relationship to the steep decline between 2012 and 2015 is really unknown but it is possible.

          1. “you should bear in mind that the Scottish government has full autonomy over education so it is unlikely that the UK government had any input on the Scottish figures in relation to the PISA data. Not even John Swinney is claiming a UK conspiracy!”

            Its a fact that PISA is UK Government appointed and like all Good Government quangos they produce whatever line the Government wants them to produce. A made to order delivery service.
            The Scottish Government cant influence PISA in any way shape or form.

            “that there wasn’t any robust evaluation in place to find out what is going on”

            Fertile ground for data manipulation. The OBR do it the IFS does it GERS just takes its data from the OBR because there is no actual scrutiny or evaluation on the actual data collection. Its all taken at face value on the Westminster honour system. A system with no actual honour.

  3. What do we know? Well, teachers teach, politicians (of any party ) don’t. When I went through the education system there were many of the teachers who just could not command the attention of their class, surely the first prerequisite of the job.
    Above teachers are Heads of departments, then Headmasters, and above THEM there are Directors of Education, receiving a substantial pay poke. Thing is, we never see any report of ANY of them getting the sack. Are we to suppose that they are ALL competent in an age of declining standards?

    Why does Scottish Labour think sacking a Minister will solve an education problem? But then we have been here before. When the North Stafford Trust was in the news for thousands of premature deaths, there was no suggestion of POLITICAL blame from the opposition or the media—yet Scottish Labour thought it was apt to blame the Scottish First Minister for the lack of a BLANKET in a ward—-a blame which was amplified and regurgitated by a disgraceful “Scottish” media. Motes and beams?

    We know in England there is an attainment gap between the North and South of that country. Scotland’s education problems are never put into a wider context.
    We know there is a problem with white British boys in the education system, which appears to be cultural. Does that extend to Scotland?

  4. No one has mentioned that the rate of decline has reduced substantially after Labour were rejected by the electorate.

      1. Labours record in Wales speaks for itself Duncan. Or it could be the Tories playing with data and stats again?

  5. Is it not correct that the PISA results from 2000 to around 2005 are from a different age group ie primary and therefore are not valid against the results taken after that date. So that graph is a load of bolloxs.

    1. Wow. And I thought you couldn’t stoop any lower. You’re actually trying to self promote your worthless plagiarised/stolen mostly from the BBC YouTube videos. You take other peoples videos and post them as your own with a dishonest line of introduction.
      Seems they don’t do shame in Edinburgh South.
      And now you claim you’re doing it all for the kids?
      See you’re exactly how the people of Scotland picture yer average Labour parasite.

      1. It would be plagiarism if I passed the clips off as my own – I don’t. I don’t even collect the advertising revenue – I make sure that goes to the copyright holders.

        But Mike, I am not surprised that you attack me personally rather than sticking to the points that are being made. That’s what you do.

        1. But you don’t make any points you just plagiarise BBC propaganda. None of it is your own opinion or research is it?

  6. My son was one of the students assessed in the 2015 PISA round, being in S4 when the assessments were done. We discussed the outcomes when they were published.
    He only has a dim recollection of the assessments and no interest at all in the results. At the time he and his yeargroup were studying for their Nat 4 and 5 exams and the assessments were an unwanted and, as far as they were concerned, unnecessary distraction. The Nat courses had descended into an assessment-fest and they didn’t have either the time or inclination to devote much effort to something that was, to them, worthless in that it contributed nothing to their coursework.
    It’s interesting to note that this same yeargroup went on to deliver either the second- or third-highest level in attainment at Higher level in May 2016.
    That was the view of the S4 yeargroup in one typical secondary school and, given the pressures being exerted by N4 and N5 at that time, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was pretty near universal.

  7. If you look deeper into the figures it is clear that the decline in maths is happening in the primary sector, with pupils transferring to the secondary schools increasingly behind where they should be at the start of S1.

    The solution, then, is not to focus on the format of the final national exams in the senior phase of secondary education but to focus on how maths is being taught in primary schools across the country.

    1. Recent figures seem to back up your “increasingly behind” point – that must be a concern.

      And I agree there should be a focus on improving Primary performance – there are ways to get mathematics specialists into primary schools without any added cost but it would take a huge shift in attitudes and some creative timetabling – if the will was there a way could be found for this to work effectively

  8. I thought I had read something about these PISA results somewhere, and I found the stuff on the “THOUGHTCONTROLSCOTLAND” site and it was a couple of articles by Professor John Robertson.

    It certain blows the info in this article out the water, it appears our education system is a lot better than labour and the rest of the yoon parties are trying to project.

    Take a check and make up your own mind.

    1. John Robertson is not a professor, and he is certainly not a reliable source. His “thoughtcontrolscotland” personal blog is a hilariously one-sided diatribe against “unionists”. His argument against the OECD’s international comparisons using PISA is that you get better results if you compare completely different sets of outcomes in Scotland and England as if they were equivalent.

      Anyone who cites John Robertson should be embarrassed as a matter of course; but to cite him literally arguing that an international comparator run by a global organisation is less reliable than a half-arsed web search for percentages from two wildly differing education measures – this is beyond rational.

      1. So you, the instigator of more spin than a merry-go-round are saying that Professor John Robertson who was “Media Politics Professor” of the University of the West of Scotland is not a Professor on your say-so, what is their an expiry date on being a professor ?

        “personal blog is a hilariously one-sided diatribe against “unionists”. And the articles on labour hame are of the highest moral and factually correct standards ever recorded in Scotland on social media !!! or maybe not eg – anything by Jim O’Neill, Scott Arthur, Andy MacMillan, Kezia Dugdale and of course yersel, are frequently ripped apart within minutes because of their questionable content.

        As regarding his articles verses the one in labour hame all I asked was for people “To take a check and make up your own mind”, and within 25 minutes of posting the comment, your loosing it.

        It certainly made me suspious of your motives, I bet it does others.

        1. Who is Professor John Robertson? The person to whose blog you pointed us is not a professor. He left his job. You don’t get to keep your job title after you resign.

          His argument is laughable. You know it. You’re just desperately throwing mud.

        2. Davy,

          I said in the article the graph could be viewed as a stand alone 15 year caption of performance in three key basic skills – what the graph shows is a deterioration – there has to be some analysis of why there has been this drop in performance. There are a lot of good things going on in many schools throughout Scotland – there are two secondary schools in the east end of Glasgow, from neighbouring catchments, who are producing the goods. The area in my opinion has become highly ambitious and aspirational and it would be a suitable place to start when looking for solutions – the 2015 OECD report noted the differences between local authorities but there needs to be someone driving this “middle” – I’m not sure the present SNP government with its centralising tendencies fully understands this need.Although maybe they do understand but it doesn’t chime with their style of ‘cult of the personality’ governance.

  9. So if I say John Robertson who was Professor of Media Politics for the University of the West of Scotland that is ok for your exalted standards.

    It certainly appears that you have something personal against the Ex-professor , but my argument was quite simple.

    It was just for people “To take a check and make up their own mind”, and you are trying everything you can to prevent people from doing this. Therefore I repeat I am very suspicious of your motives and I hope other people can enlighten me as to why

    1. I’ve done absolutely nothing to prevent people from checking out his blog, don’t lie. I’ve just given my opinion about it, and corrected your inaccurate description of him as a professor.

      1. “and he is certainly not a reliable source” also “anyone who cites john Robertson should be embarrassed as a matter of course”,

        And that’s your version of doing “absolutely nothing”.

        1. That’s me doing “absolutely nothing to prevent people from checking out his blog”. Perhaps you didn’t mean “prevent”? Perhaps you meant “dissuade”?

          1. You realise they mean different things? Do you accept I did absolutely nothing to prevent people from reading his dreadful little blog?

Comments are closed.