Fail­ures go be­yond P1 tests

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - NEWS -

The gov­ern­ment’s po­ten­tial hu­mil­i­a­tion over pri­mary one tests is just the lat­est set­back for the SNP in its dis­mal han­dling of ed­u­ca­tion over the past decade.

John Swin­ney, the min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble, who is also the deputy first min­is­ter, was con­sid­ered a fairly safe bet within the party, un­til he was given the schools brief.

But even this sea­soned politi­cian has come a crop­per in pos­si­bly the trick­i­est depart­ment – af­ter health – to man­age and must long for the days when he only had the na­tion’s bud­get to bal­ance over at Fi­nance.

Swin­ney was put in charge of schools re­form when his boss, Ni­cola Stur­geon, said she wanted to be judged on her record in ed­u­ca­tion and vowed to make clos­ing the at­tain­ment gap be­tween rich and poor chil­dren in Scot­land her pri­or­ity.

By giv­ing her most able col­league the job, she sent out a clear sig­nal that she re­ally did mean to do some­thing about the coun­try’s fast fall­ing ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards.

It would be a ma­jor em­bar­rass­ment, then, if the move to scrap pri­mary one tests – which has all op­po­si­tion party sup­port – goes ahead, re­flect­ing a to­tal lack of con­fi­dence in the Ed­in­burgh gov­ern­ment.

But the SNP has com­mit­ted worse ed­u­ca­tion crimes than trying to im­pose as­sess­ments on five-year-olds.

Swin­ney had to aban­don his flag­ship Ed­u­ca­tion Bill in June and along with it his vi­sion of em­pow­er­ing head teach­ers to set the cur­ricu­lum, hire staff and con­trol their own purse strings.

Most of th­ese are ba­sic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for man­agers in any other ef­fi­cient busi­ness, but Scot­land’s schools are still run by the unions, which are not in­ter­ested in ef­fi­ciency or, it seems, in ed­u­ca­tion.

But per­haps more dis­ap­point­ing than the fail­ure of Swin­ney’s pro­posed changes is the fail­ure of the ex­ist­ing ed­u­ca­tion strat­egy.

It came to light over the week­end that dozens of sec­ondary schools are sim­ply ig­nor­ing a gov­ern­ment edict to teach all pupils a for­eign lan­guage up to the end of S3.

In a sur­vey by a Dundee Univer­sity pro­fes­sor, Jim Scott, it was found that only 161 out of all 359 state sec­on­daries were teach­ing a com­pul­sory mod­ern lan­guage for three years.

The other schools ei­ther thought lan­guage teach­ing to this level was an op­tional re­quire­ment or they didn’t pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about what their pro­vi­sion was.

Ac­quir­ing lan­guages not only makes young­sters more em­ploy­able but is also be­lieved to im­prove lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy.

In Scot­land, the number of chil­dren pass­ing French at S4 has de­creased by al­most two-thirds in just four years. There has been a 30% re­duc­tion in qual­i­fied French teach­ers in the past 10 years and a 45% drop in Ger­man teach­ers.

Th­ese rep­re­sent a stag­ger­ing de­cline in sub­jects that were once a main­stay of the sec­ondary cur­ricu­lum. Has the gov­ern­ment not no­ticed or is this an­other ed­u­ca­tion prob­lem for the too hard bas­ket?

Con­sid­er­ing the im­por­tance Stur­geon places on Scot­land be­ing a part of the wider Euro­pean com­mu­nity, it does seem ex­tra­or­di­nary that there is so lit­tle effort in mak­ing Scot­tish chil­dren more EU friendly.

School­child­ren in Brussels or Paris or Madrid are of­ten bilin­gual or trilin­gual by the time they leave school and will trans­fer seam­lessly be­tween coun­tries and, in the fu­ture, be­tween jobs, no doubt.

Out­side the EU, as we will soon be, lan­guages such as Man­darin or Ara­bic will be­come as use­ful as French, Span­ish and Ger­man and should be val­ued along with maths and sci­ence.

Sev­eral of the big em­ploy­ers, in­clud­ing in the city, have two piles for job ap­pli­ca­tions, one for those with lan­guage skills and one (the slush pile) for those with­out. Scot­tish job seek­ers are dis­ad­van­taged be­fore they even reach the in­ter­view stage. The Bri­tish Coun­cil’s Alice Camp­bell-cree, who edited the Lan­guages for the Fu­ture re­port, wrote last year that Bri­tain ‘will need to reach out, within and be­yond Europe, to main­tain and im­prove our eco­nomic po­si­tion, to build trust, strengthen our in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence and cul­tural re­la­tion­ships, and to keep our coun­try safe’.

To do this, the next gen­er­a­tion must be able to con­nect with peo­ple around the world and speak their lan­guages. But even when this mes­sage is spelt out, in English, Scot­land’s politi­cians don’t un­der­stand.

The na­tion­al­ists are not the only party to have made empty prom­ises over ed­u­ca­tion; other politi­cians from other per­sua­sions have come into of­fice with hopes of en­rich­ing young peo­ple with the gift of good school­ing. They have all been thwarted by teach­ers’ unions, fear­ful of los­ing their grip.

But the SNP has been in gov­ern­ment for a long time, and has en­joyed com­fort­able ma­jori­ties in some of those years.

If ed­u­ca­tion re­form had been as high up the agenda as, say, con­sti­tu­tional change, would to­day’s Scot­tish teenagers be strug­gling to match the achieve­ments of their coun­ter­parts in Europe, Eng­land in­cluded, where ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards are now gen­er­ally higher?

Sec­ondary schools are sim­ply ig­nor­ing a gov­ern­ment edict

Pic­ture: Paul Reid.

Deputy First Min­is­ter John Swin­ney had to aban­don his flag­ship Ed­u­ca­tion Bill in June.

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