Sunday, 4 June 2017

Scottish Education: SNP Neglect or Tory Austerity?

Note: this blog post is now more neatly summarised here: Scottish Education: A Generation, Failed

This is not a carefully crafted blog post, it's simply me sharing "work-in-progress" as I dig a little further into the issues underlying the record of failure in Scottish education. I'm sharing my work as I ask the following question: to what extent is it fair to blame the SNP for the worrying trends in Scottish pupils' educational attainment?

There are issues that pre-date the SNP's leadership and there are issue that are UK-wide, so I want to see if there is sound evidence that the SNP themselves have made decisions to de-prioritise education.

First of all a bit of house-keeping. In my recent blog Judging the SNP on Their Education Record, I'd labelled some SSLN graphs as being "Literacy" attainment when in fact they were just the Reading element of Literacy. For completeness then, here is the full set of graphs for Numeracy, Reading and Writing*.

* the stats for "Listening & Talking" were only introduced 2014, so I haven't taken the time to graph these

To read these graphs: the dotted black line shows the overall performance over time, the gap between the red (least deprived) and green (most deprived) lines illustrates the Attainment Gap.

P4 (age 7-8): Reading, Writing & Numeracy
Little evidence of sustained improvements in Reading & Writing and a worrying drop in Numeracy performance particularly among children from the most deprived backgrounds.

P7 (age 10 - 11): Reading, Writing & Numeracy
Reading performance stable and with a relatively small Attainment Gap, but declines in Writing and Numeracy performance, along with widening Attainment Gaps.

S2 (age 13 - 14): Reading, Writing & Numeracy
Reading performance relatively stable, with no sustained progress on closing the Attainment Gap. Dramatic decline in Writing performance, with the Attainment Gap only slightly narrowing because of faster decline in performance by pupils from least deprived backgrounds. Numeracy overall stable at a low level of performance and with no progress in closing what is the largest Attainment Gap of all.

OK, so that's tidied up the evidence on performance. Combine the PISA data from the previous blog post with the SSLN data and we can fairly conclude that, overall, standards are slipping and Attainment Gaps remain high and are growing more than they're closing. Something's going badly wrong.

So what evidence do we have that the SNP have taken actions that have caused this? There are of course questions about the wider strategic approach with the Curriculum for Excellence, but I'm focusing here on hard, objective data. In particular I'm looking to see differences between Scotland and England, as that provides evidence that what we're seeing here can't simply be dismissed as the knock-on effect of "Tory Austerity".


Using our old friend the GERS figures, we can look at the different trends in spending on education and training (i.e. more than just schools) between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Given the Barnett Formula ensures that Scotland has the capacity to maintain spending in this area in line with the rest of the UK, any decision to pursue a different path is the result of SNP policy decisions.

If we look at indexed spend per capita we can illustrate the trend differences between spending on Education & Training in Scotland and the rest of the UK. 

This shows there is little difference between Scottish and rUK indexed spend in 2015-16 (both are down about 7.5% vs 2006/7). However, in the intervening years on average Scotland lagged rUK spend by 8% - Scotland didn't increase spending when rUK did, and it's just in the last year that the SNP has finally taken action to increase real-terms spend and close the gap

It's not just how much that has been spent of course, but what it's been spent on. We know the Scottish Government chooses to spend some education & training money to support their flagship "no tuition fees" policy for example - so let's looking at schooling specific spend.

Unsurprisingly in this context, spend per pupil is down in primary and secondary education in Scotland, as highlighted in the National Benchmarking Overview Report 2015/16:

This data shows Scottish spend/pupil between 2010-11 and 2015-16 declining by 9.4% in Primary and 2.2% in Secondary. In both cases there has been a "shutting-the-stable-door-after-the-horse-has-bolted" looking increase in spend just in the last year (consistent with the overall education & training spend data above)

Teacher Numbers

There's an excellent fact-check by Ferret Scotland on this topic which shows teacher numbers in Scotland have declined by 4,000 since the SNP came to power - that's a 7.5% decline.

The most recent stats on school teacher numbers for England only go up to 2015: over the 2007 to 2015 period they show FTE "regular teacher" numbers increasing by 4%, or nearly 16 thousand teachers. The same period in Scotland saw teacher numbers decline by 8%.

Looking at pupil:teacher ratios back to 2007 takes a bit of work. Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland shows the data from 2010 and shows pupil:teacher ratios increasing (ie getting worse, as we might expect given the scale of the teacher number decline)

It's a bit of a faff to go back to 2007, but I've done the work so here it is:

I've struggled to get fully comparable stats for England, but this data suggest (as we'd expect from the teacher number stats) that pupil:teach ratios (PTR) are decreasing (improving) in England. This table may be hard to read, but it shows
  • LA Maintained Primary PTR decreased from 21.9 in 2007 to 21.0 in 2015
  • LA Maintained Secondary PTR decreased from 16.5 in 2007 to 15.8 in 2015


To summarise: the SNP have cut spending on education & training in Scotland over the last 9 years by on average 8% more than it's been cut in the rest of the UK.

Unsurprisingly, over the same period teacher numbers in Scotland have declined (by 8%) and pupil:teacher ratios (a proxy for class sizes) have increased (by 6%). The reverse has happened in England, with teacher numbers up (by 4%) and pupil:teacher ratios improving.

The Barnett formula ensures Scotland has the option to follow the rest of the UK when investing in schooling; the hard evidence shows that the SNP has simply chosen not to. 

The area worst hit in terms of teacher numbers and pupil:teacher ratios has been Primary school education. If we rely on school-leaver "tariff scores" and exam passes to measure our education system's performance, it will be a long while before the true cost of these cuts is seen.

One of the factors driving the decrease in teacher numbers in Scotland has clearly been a failure to train enough teachers. Witness this recent exchange between Daniel Johnson and John Swinney at the recent Education and Skills Committee (31 May 2017).

In summary: Daniel points out the target numbers for student teachers nearly halved from 4,437 in 2005/6 to 2,300 in 20011/12 and we currently have 700 teacher vacancies - the SNP has simply failed to train enough teachers.

In response John Swinney admits:
"Clearly with the benefit of hindsight the intake number in 2011 was probably over-corrected too far ..."

I started this rambling blog by asking the question: to what extent is it fair to blame the SNP for the worrying trends in Scottish pupils' educational attainment?

Based on the evidence above I'd suggest the conclusion is pretty clear: the SNP (and not "Tory austerity") are to blame for failing to invest appropriately in our Scottish education system


Anonymous said...

According to ONS, deficit per head 2015-16

£5,437 = N Ireland
£4,454 = Wales

but only
£2,834 = Scotland

Clear proof that Scotland is being under-funded by Westminster!

Table s4

Kevin Hague said...

you'd have to be pretty confused about how pooling & sharing works to conclude that Scotland is under-funded - you do realise that if we were funded more our notional deficit would be even bigger than current £15bn 10% of GDP, right?

What you really mean is you think Wales and NI are over-funded, because you don't like pooling & sharing when you see others getting even more than Scotland

Why am I plagued by these anonymous fools?

Anonymous said...

"Why am I plagued by these anonymous fools?" Because you are a credible threat to the SNP's nationalism.

Nial said...

The surprising thing being that Wales gets more per head than Scotland.

Certainly something to point out when asked why the UK is holding on to Scotland when we're costing them so much.

Alan Parker said...

No real term cuts to Scotland direct or otherwise as a flustered Angus Robertson found out in a TV interview with Andrew Neil , furthermore the F.A.I and others tells us it has risen since 2010 and will do into next year.

The SNP need asked were they spent the extra funding we got for or NHS and education , was it for failed projects like the named person ?

Anonymous said...

Baby boxes, Prestwick Airport, Gaelic roadsigns, annual jolly adventurers for Nicola Sturgeon an the Z-list celebrity circuit in America...or hiring more teachers.

The SNP are like someone who is overweight because they just cannot pass-up junk food even through they have the means and opportunity to make better choices.