“Let me be clear – I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to? It really matters.” That was Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge, in a keynote speech to education leaders in 2015, asking that her term in office should be judged by her delivery of quality schooling to Scots youngsters.
So, how is that noble aspiration progressing? Well, an obvious source of information would be the independent OECD report on the so-called Curriculum for Excellence and its effect on Scottish schools, due for publication this month and already with the Scottish government. Unfortunately, this month’s scheduled publication has been postponed until June, “due to coronavirus”. That means – and Nicola must be really vexed about this – Scots will not have access to a report that no doubt praises her educational achievements until after they have cast their votes at May’s elections.
That portion of the public which has succumbed to the hagiography of Sturgeon as a Mother Theresa figure, presiding protectively and ubiquitously over the interests of a plague-stricken nation, will probably conclude that Nicola has postponed publication of an education report that will further exalt her reputation, to preserve a level playing field and avoid gaining an unfair advantage over her opponents at the election. Others will regard the move as a responsible precaution to avoid spreading the coronavirus: it is well known that OECD education reports carry a health warning – especially for an SNP government.
Inevitably, though, cynics are claiming Sturgeon is burying the only independent assessment of the state of Scottish schools on her watch, to avoid retribution at the May elections. Those jaundiced observers suggest that, if the report’s findings were creditable to Sturgeon, it would be published near and far, trumpeted on the media and posted out to every household in Scotland. Since the reverse is happening, it must be a real stinker.
It is worth noting that this cover-up, far from being a last-minute expedient, has been in preparation for almost a year, ever since the SNP realised it had shot itself in the foot, as a result of a damage limitation exercise that went badly wrong. The review had its origins in September 2019, when a committee of the Scottish parliament published a critical report, condemning the narrowness of subject choice at the secondary levels S-4 to S-6, and recommending the Scottish government should commission an independent review of this area of schooling.
John Swinney, Scottish education secretary, agreed to this and commissioned the OECD, as an impeccably independent authority, to carry out the review. Politically, this appeared a low-risk strategy. Although any independent investigation of the current state of Scottish schools could only expose a very nasty car crash, the least dangerous option was to restrict any report to a narrow tranche of the education system: if the findings proved embarrassing, they could be put in “context” by comparison with the claimed excellence of every other, uninvestigated part of the system.
That hope was derailed, however, when opposition MSPs compelled Swinney to expand the review to cover the whole of the Curriculum for Excellence, thus bringing the entire school system under OECD scrutiny. The SNP’s worst nightmare is an external, independent body investigating every feature of the mess they have made of Scottish education. To publish what must inevitably be an indictment of Nicola Sturgeon’s failed stewardship in education – the responsibility on which she asked to be judged – just six weeks before the Scottish elections amounted to political suicide.
So, Swinney took early action to defuse this ticking time bomb. In April last year, using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse, he announced the postponement of publication of the OECD report, scheduled for this month, until June 2021. He made this announcement by means of a written answer to a question from an SNP colleague, rather than in a statement to Holyrood. His excuse was that “it is critical that we do not make any additional demands on the system at this time”.
“Therefore, following discussions with national partners and the OECD, we have agreed to postpone engagement with policy stakeholders until September and engagement with practitioners and learners until October 2020. This approach would see publication of the final report in June 2021.”
By which time the mug punters will have cast their votes, in happy ignorance of the bomb-site Sturgeon has made of Scottish schooling. What indications do we have of the likely findings of the buried OECD report? Plenty, is the answer. The trajectory of Scottish scholastic achievement, under the stewardship of Nicola Sturgeon and the Curriculum for Excellence (don’t make us laugh!), resembles a graph of the pound sterling’s performance on Black Wednesday, 1992.
When the SNP came to power in 2007, in the OECD’s PISA education league tables of 79 countries, Scotland ranked 10th for proficiency in Science; today it is 27th. In Maths, the other crucial skill affecting life opportunities, Scotland ranked 11th; today it is 30th. In the same league tables the United Kingdom ranks 14th in Science (up one from the previous round) and 18th in Maths (up nine places). Is this the intellectual and skills infrastructure for independence being created by Nicola Sturgeon?
Officialdom prefers to cast a veil of obscurity over the distressing Scottish PISA figures: “similar to the OECD average” is how government announcements characterise the dismal Maths and Science results, without giving the rankings (30th and 27th respectively). The points scored (489 and 490) are published, presumably in the hope that few Scottish journalists will be so unhelpful as to put them into the context of other countries’ scores, thus revealing that Scotland now ranks 14 places below Slovenia in Science and 15 places in Maths.
Education Secretary John Swinney’s response to the disastrous PISA results was a masterpiece of Nelson-eyed politico-speak: “Pisa doesn’t cover everything but today corroborates what we see elsewhere – improving schools and a closing of the attainment gap… Much still to do, but well done everyone on a good result.” The calculation, presumably, was that if only those feel-good words caught the attention of the public, the comfortable assumption would be that Scottish education is safe in Sturgeon’s hands.
Bad news is not tolerated by the Sturgeon regime. In 2017, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) revealed that less than half of Scottish 13 and 14-year-olds were performing well in writing ability. Only 49 per cent of S2 pupils performed well in writing, compared with 64 per cent in 2012. The proportion of P7 pupils competent at writing had declined from 72 per cent in 2012 to 65 per cent in 2017. The SSLN had already exposed declines in maths and reading ability. The SNP government promised to take action, and so it did: it abolished the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy.
The Sturgeon government is now increasingly addicted less to lack of transparency than to downright secretiveness, to conceal its lamentable failures. The outrageous decision to postpone publication of an OEDC report on Scottish education until after the elections is just the latest example of the cavalier behaviour of a government that has obstructed the release of material to the Salmond inquiry for two years.
“There is no reason why ministers should wait to publish the report,” said Dr Keir Bloomer, former director of education and one of the original architects of the Curriculum for Excellence, this week. Steady on, Keir, look at the bigger picture. There is no practical reason – granted – the report is completed and with the Scottish government. There is no health reason, considering draconian anti-free speech laws sponsored by the SNP are trundling forward, along with a thousand other SNP absurdities, regardless of coronavirus. There is, in short, no valid reason for postponement.
But there is an imperative political reason for postponing publication: to prevent Scottish voters from being confronted with the devastation Nicola Sturgeon has wreaked upon their once world-leading education system. As such, postponement amounts to election manipulation. It is time for those concerned by Nicola Sturgeon’s arbitrary style of government to strike back. On Wednesday, in the Scottish parliament the Conservatives’ motion that MSPs should demand the government release the report before the election resulted in a rare SNP defeat, by 65 votes to 58. Considering the government’s intransigence over releasing material to the Salmond inquiry, it is questionable whether it will comply. The SNP was also defeated by opposition parties demanding an overhaul of the exams authority and education watchdog.
It may now be time to explore whether a challenge is possible in the courts to strike down the SNP government’s attempt to suppress the OECD report, a matter of key public interest, with no security implications to justify secrecy. The Scottish public has a right to see the only current independent assessment of Nicola Sturgeon’s stewardship of Scottish education – the issue on which she herself asked the electorate to judge her – before casting their votes in the May elections. Every avenue should be explored to discover if the Scottish legal system can bring redress to electors being deprived of important information before exercising their suffrage.
“I want to be judged on this.” So you will be, Nicola. Just give the public the relevant information and see what the verdict is.