Judge me on education record
INTERVIEW with author of 'Class Rules: The Truth about Scottish Schools'
Over recent months Independence Captured has sought to mark out some broad tendencies around the national question and the operation of the SNP leadership.
Today, as SNP conference debates education policy, we zoom in a little, to examine the Scottish Government’s track record on this issue.
I interviewed the author of Class Rules: The Truth about Scottish Schools, by James McEnaney, to explore the topic.
Jonathon Shafi (JS):
Can we begin by telling us a bit about what drives your interest in education. You have become a regular commentator on the subject. How did you become so involved in the issue?
James McEnaney (JM):
Initially, I ended up being a teacher kind of, reluctantly, I suppose. In my first year, I was sent to Arran for a years guaranteed work as a teacher in Scotland. This was life-changing because I found myself doing this job that obviously really mattered to the community as a whole. You could see the scale of difference that you make to people's lives even in a relatively short time.
For a variety of reasons I had to come back to the mainland. But I didn’t leave education. I took up a teaching position at a college, and thought I'd be there for six months. I found that I was teaching people who were coming to me to get the kind of qualifications that others were getting in a school. I became interested in the ways in which education, class, poverty and inequality cross-fertilised.
In 2016 I put an FOI request in to get hold of the written advice behind the introduction of standardised testing. It was not forthcoming. They spent a year fighting with me, trying to prevent me gaining access to this material. So as a result, I had not only become extremely invested in this, but also spent a year learning huge amounts about how the education system works.
Early insights into the fact that there seemed to be something really quite fundamentally broken with how we educate our young people became more grounded in research. People still don't understand the gravity of the policy shift involved in the reintroduction of standardised testing in Scotland in 2015.
From there, I devoted a huge amount of time to this issue, including writing a book on the matter.
Let’s get into that change around standard testing you refer to. What sort of shift do you think this reflects?
There are different forms of standardised tests. You can use standardised tests to do all sorts of things. But in essence, any kind of standardised test means that everyone is set the same test in order to derive the simplest possible information. In our case, this method is applied in an educational context.
The Curriculum for Excellence was explicitly introduced in order to minimise the amount of bureaucracy built up around the school curriculum. One of the major complaints it sought to address, was standardised testing. That was all meant to disappear. You can use standardised tests to do things like get information about your classes grasp of grammar for example. But this national standardised testing system is a different beast entirely. This was about generating national data. This is about putting numbers on schools and numbers on pupils. Teachers hadn't asked for it.
But it was going to be imposed. And part of the justification for imposing it was that it would give teachers useful information about our students. But that was never true. The system simply wasn't designed to do that. In reality, with standardised testing, you end up with a system where producing numbers and statistics starts to drive everything. And that's a problem in and of itself.
But it's also a problem because of all the attention it takes away from all the other things that you you could be doing, and the kind of culture that it creates. You end up using it to build a culture that says failure to close the attainment gap is the fault of teachers.
We gave pupils these tests. And that provided all this information. But positive educational outcomes don’t necessarily increase as a result. Many think that the SNP have only been under pressure on education in recent times, perhaps since the education bill died and John Swinney was education secretary. But people forget John Swinney was made education secretary because the SNP was already under so much pressure on this issue.
So the result is the policies were based on responding to this pressure at a political, not an educational, level. I think this has resulted in a situation where education policy has pretty much invariably been about politics, not pupils.
Can you give us some wider context around that analysis you've just laid out about some of the factors involved in the book when it comes to the question of class and education policy?
The clearest example that you will ever see anywhere in relation to class inequality and its impact on education took place in 2020. When exams were cancelled as a result of the pandemic, we needed to do something else. But what happened was that they designed a system which would reproduced historic attainment patterns.
This meant that no matter the grades teachers may have forecast for their pupils, based on available data, they were forced at a national level to align with previous results patterns. In practice that means pupils from more deprived areas have to fail because, according to the system, they are supposed to fail.
This is what it was all about. The poorer pupils are meant to fail. And if they don't fail at the sort of rates they've always failed, then that's a huge problem to the system. It would shatter credibility in it. Imagine that was true, that it shatters the credibility of our education system, if the poor kids aren't kept down. Because that's what was happening.
What we found when we actually got the non-algorithm results was that when exams were taken away in 2020, the attainment gap as measured by the higher pass rate was basically halved overnight. There’s a very easy explanation to explain why this happened. And it’ not because of “grade inflation.” Instead it’s they way that disparities are prefigured into the examination process, which leaves less well off pupils at an extra disadvantage.
In my view, schools should exist to in some sense mitigate inequality. But the ability to do so is severely limited. Much, much more than people want to believe. Schools are thought to be in control of less than 10% of the factors that influence attainment. So more than 90% of the things that drive the results that pupils leave school with are things that schools have got absolutely no control. None whatsoever.
So it's absurd to think that they can address inequality across society. We should be clear that in Scotland the gap between rich and poor, in terms of educational outcomes, is narrower than most comparable countries. However, the limitations that you that you come up against are simply things that schools can never, ever do anything about.
The formulation I put in the book was the following. Injustice in, equals injustice out. You cannot pour in multi-generational poverty and deprivation only to be scandalised when we get the same outcomes at the end of the process.
The reason that rich people want to be rich is because it makes life easier. So if you are in a much better environment than somebody else, statistically speaking, we can basically guarantee you that your educational records are better.
It sounds simple, but this basic fact is at the heart of injustice in the education system.
How do you assess the Scottish Government in relation to all of this, and to education specifically?
Nicola Sturgeon said quite bluntly, “judge me on education.” And after seven years, it's been an abject failure. If you read the OECD report it makes it abundantly clear that we have had seven years of policies that have just failed. And those are seven years of policies that are directly tied to Nicola Sturgeon.
Part of the reason that this government just isn't capable of delivering the kinds of reform that would be necessary is that they can’t, for political reasons, admit that the the last seven years have been a disaster. And because they can't admit that, they need to very tightly restrict the terms on which any discussion of reform can be allowed to happen, because those discussions would necessarily be built upon, at least in part, an examination of the failures of the last seven years.
So this means that policy debate on this question cannot be allowed to centre around around discussions that are too difficult for the SNP. This, to repeat, means evading critical appraisals of policies which are tied to the political career of the First Minister.
That simply must change if we are to make progress in Scottish education.
Thank you James, for your insights.