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.