7 June 2021

Scotland’s children have been terribly let down by the SNP’s pandemic policies

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In my Sunday Times column this week, I wrote about the difficulties Boris Johnson is having in paying for education catch-up – having commissioned Sir Kevan Collins to produce a money-no-object plan to fill the learning gap, before realising that actually money was something of an object after all.

The Government has pointed out, in its defence, that while it could not fund Sir Kevan’s full £15 billion blueprint, it has put £3.1 billion extra into tutoring. And while this may compare unfavourably on a per child basis with some other countries, it is more than 155 times what Nicola Sturgeon has managed to find up in Scotland.

Intrigued by this disparity, I looked into what was actually going on. And the more you dig into the topic, the more depressing it becomes.

The SNP’s defence on this is that they have already “invested £400 million in education recovery”. But this doesn’t stack up. 

The £400m was spent primarily on introducing ventilation to classrooms, to help children go back to school safely. Which is good! We all know the virus doesn’t like fresh air. But it’s not the same as “education recovery”. It’s stopping the slide, not repairing the damage. Also, even with all that ventilation, Scottish schools were also way slower than English ones to get pupils back into classrooms, meaning more educational damage.

They were also, as Magnus Linklater sets out in this powerful piece for The Times, far, far worse at providing support during lockdown itself. During the initial lockdown, more than half of Scottish students received NO CONTACT FROM TEACHERS AT ALL (my angry caps). 

To quote one parent in his piece:

“My niece at state primary school in London received 45 minutes live maths, and 45 minutes live literacy every day online, and her parents got a phone call every week while schools were shut. My children in state primary in Scotland received no live lessons at all, except the oldest, whose German teacher did one live lesson a week. The school has taught them no maths at all since Christmas.”

Oh, and Scotland was also far worse than England at handing out laptops. And, remarkably, they’ve managed to match or even outdo England in terms of screwing up exams, too. 

Last week, the Centre for Policy Studies (which I run) and Public First (which I don’t) teamed up for a study on education catch-up in England. 

We found that the damage is very real, and concentrated among the most disadvantaged pupils. To quickly run through:

  • Early data from the Education Policy Institute and Renaissance Learning, funded by the Department for Education, showed that pupils had lost up to two months in reading in primary and secondary, and up to three months in maths (primary) by Autumn 2020.
  • The same study found that schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged pupils showed 50% more learning loss.
  • A report by a second assessment company on primary school pupils found that by Spring 2021 there had been a three-month decline in maths and grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) performance, and a two-month decline in reading. The biggest falls were in younger year groups (Years 1 and 2). Again, schools with more deprived pupils showed bigger declines.
  • The most recent data from No More Marking, a comparative judgement assessment group, did not find a major average decline in Year 2 pupils’ writing, but did find that the distribution had widened (in other words, some students were performing better than in previous years, and others were performing much worse).
  • A recent survey by Teach First reported that schools serving the poorest were twice as likely to have fallen behind due to the pandemic.

Given the above, the situation is likely to be just as bad in Scotland, or worse.

But here’s the weird thing. 

The SNP’s reaction to this so far has been to declare a “national summer of play”. There are two problems with this. The first is that just £20m is being spent on it, which is less a government programme than a rounding error. (Given that there are just under 800,000 school pupils in Scotland, this comes to £25 a head. Not so much a summer of play as a summer of a play, maybe just about stretching to a snack in the interval.)

But what was striking was that the announcement was explicitly contrasted by “education experts and advisers to the Scottish government” with the blunt, brutal, “simplistic” approach taken by Sir Kevan Collins in his recommendations in England, which focused on extra tutoring and an extra 30 minutes on the school day.

It was classic SNP fare: we are nice and clever, they are nasty and wrong. The only problem is – it’s complete nonsense.

Our report included extensive polling and focus groups, as well as studies of the data. We found that parents were overwhelmingly concerned that their children had fallen behind in core academic subjects, especially maths. The emerging evidence also suggests that this is where the worst impacts have been.

In fact, when we tested multiple options for catch-up with parents, all pro-academic interventions were popular (in particular tutoring, but also longer terms and Collins’s 30-minute extension to the school day, with academic focus).

What was NOT popular in any way at all, either in focus groups or polling, was the idea of “giving them a fun summer” (potentially with longer holidays, which some have called for).

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Now, it may be that Scottish parents are utterly different from English parents – since education is devolved, we only polled in England.

Or it may be that the SNP has chosen the wrong policy, given it an abysmally pitiful amount of money, and then wrapped the whole thing in a tasty wrapper of anti-Englishness. That Scottish children have been let down during the pandemic, and are being let down still.

And the sad truth is that this is entirely of a piece with the entire course of Scottish education in recent years. It’s behind a paywall, but this piece from Alex Massie is an utterly devastating run-through of the failures of the system, including the “Curriculum for Excellence” debacle, and culminating in the withdrawal from international league tables that might show how far Scotland’s pupils have fallen.

Now, in the original announcement of the “summer of play” there was a hint of further funding that might actually address the problems parents actually care about – “key areas such as literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing”. But, given the SNP’s track record, it’s hard to see things improving. And it will be Scotland’s pupils that continue to lose out.

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Robert Colvile is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies and Editor-in-Chief of CapX.