Kids exiting school

More Problems with Scotland’s Schools

Nicola Biggerstaff – 26th May 2022

Rather ironically, I should begin by acknowledging some confusion regarding a statement in my previous article relating to schools. While Scotland did pull out of the OECD PISA assessment in 2010 in an attempt to cut costs, the accusation of pulling out of the assessment due to falling standards pertains to the 2018 assessment, in which we did take part, and was levelled to the SNP by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, in light of evidence of an increase in individual pupils withdrawing their own survey responses or having their responses deemed invalid between the 2015 and 2018 assessments. While I feel the need to apologise profusely for the confusion, it does point to the rather murky reporting of education standards in this country that such a mistake could be so easily made. 

Last week I reported on the issues which are currently plaguing teachers across the country, namely workload and building trust in the face of impending SQA reform. However, much like a lot of the reporting on these issues, I perhaps also neglected a key component of the education system – the pupils themselves – for it’s not just our teachers who are struggling under the weighty issues at present. Even before the pandemic, mental health issues among teenagers in Scotland was skyrocketing, with widely reported statistics now suggesting this has only worsened in recent years. Having gone through mental health issues resulting from stress in high school myself, I dread to think what is currently going through the minds of our young people just trying to make the most of their education in the most challenging circumstances seen in generations. 

It’s not just the mental health of pupils which is suffering. In the current pandemic recovery, children are returning to school with literacy and numeracy skills which have either significantly deteriorated or disappeared completely. They have completely lost the ability to socialise and work in groups, and have returned with such a lack of discipline that we are on the cusp of teacher strike action in response to verbal and physical harassment from their own pupils. Teachers have become glorified social workers in attempting to close not only the gaps in development caused by the major disruption to learning during the pandemic, but the gaps in attainment which were ever present even pre-2020. As I discussed last week, these issues are causing major burnout among pupils and teachers alike, further impacting on focus, learning and attainment in the classroom, repeat the cycle, ad infinitum. 

Furthermore, in light of Scotland’s poorer performance in terms of maths and science in the 2018 assessment, leading to the UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi this week offering to advise Holyrood on practices in England and Wales, should we really be looking to our direct neighbours as an example to improve our own standards? England and Wales’s obsession with outcomes; their insistence that their top-class education system is in fact ‘the best in the world’ being parroted by government officials, including the current education minister himself, has blinded them to the facts. They live in a country where at least nine million adults are functionally illiterate, and one in five primary school leavers cannot read or write properly. However, as mentioned, we in Scotland are in no position to berate anyone on education standards. It’s time look inside ourselves to figure out where things have gone wrong, without the patronising interventions of Westminster. 

Perhaps the prioritising of vague developmental outcomes in Curriculum for Excellence, while invaluable to a pupil’s mental health and personal development, is not the solution to attaining more evidence-based results which will ultimately benefit future prospects in terms of employment, further education, milestone baselines of actual substance. We find ourselves struggling to strike a balance between tangible, results-based attainment which will further secure a pupil’s future prospects and outcomes, and wanting less-tangible, but less stress-inducing progressive outcomes such as those outlined in the Curriculum for Excellence which will aid the full personal development of pupils. However, much like last week, I find myself asking the question of whether the collective nations’ over-reliance on data and analytics is in fact hurting our young people. With every teacher I speak to, the answer is veering headstrong towards yes. How do we counteract this for the benefit of both teacher and pupil? What solutions are out there?

This week I have been working with teachers across the central belt and beyond to establish Common Weal’s Schools working group. We are identifying the common issues in our school system and are looking forward to working together to rectify them and provide workable solutions. If you are an educator of any school level or employed in the sector and would be interested in joining our group, or to find out more, get in touch with me at nicola@common.scot. I look forward to hearing from you!

1 thought on “More Problems with Scotland’s Schools”

  1. florian albert

    Nicola Biggerstaff highlights the deterioration in pupil attainment levels as a result of the Covid epidemic. There is no attempt to quantify this. Doing so would be very difficult since there is a shortage of evidence as to where the pupils were at the start of the epidemic. There is an absence of standardized testing/assessment. Opposition to it, not least from the EIS, means it is impossible to say which schools did well for their pupils and which did badly. My guess would be that pupils in prosperous areas fared better than those in deprived areas – as usual.
    Further, the disruption to education, which Ms Biggerstaff believes had a negative effect on learning, had no such effect on those sitting external exams; quite the opposite. Achievement reached record levels. This last fact will – in the log run – undermine confidence in the teaching profession.

    Finally, the crisis demonstrated that the Scottish school system is simultaneously highly centralized and anarchic. Central control leaves individual schools and teachers almost no time for anything beyond trying to work out – from the blizzard of jargon filled guidance – what CfE requires of them both in terms of teaching and of assessment.
    However, when lockdown came, this centralized system was utterly impotent. Teachers and pupils were on their own.
    It is indicative of what low priority schooling has that this was scarcely commented on. Lindsay Patterson was one of the few to realize that this was a national disgrace.
    Long term schools in the Independent sector and in the likes of East Renfrewshire will get back on track fairly easily. Those at the bottom will have fallen further behind.
    The public has been noticing which groups responded well to the crisis and which groups failed to do so. I doubt that schools will be in the first group.

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