By Bill Heaney
An A for achievement. That’s what is appearing in the report cards of the education system in our schools, according to Education Secretary John Swinney.
He was replying to questions from Tory leader Ruth Davidson while standing in at Holyrood for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who was in Normandy for the D-Day commemoration services.
She said: “In recent weeks, we have heard a lot about the difficulties that teachers face due to staff shortages and subject choice restrictions. We now learn that, in many schools, teachers are having to teach different qualification levels of the same subject in the same class at the same time.
“That means that pupils of different ages, all thrown in together, are studying different topics for different exams”
And she claimed to have heard Mr Swinney say there was nothing wrong with that.
The Education Secretary added: “Multilevel teaching has been a feature of the education system in Scotland for many years. It was a feature of the education system when I was going through it, all those years ago.
“Clearly, there is an active debate on the issues around subject choices, but I stand by my remarks that multilevel teaching is delivered effectively in our schools by teachers who are trained to deliver professionalism of that quality and standard.”
Davidson listed a number of teaching unions and prominent figures in education who had raised concerns about combined classes – “there has been an “explosion” in the number of combined classes, which is putting teachers under increasing pressure.
“How did he miss the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers saying that the issue is causing intolerable workloads and stress or the Association for Science Education saying that teaching a combined class is like spinning two plates at one time?”
Mr Swinney said: “There is a debate to be had about every topic in education—education is a part of our society that is actively the subject of debate.
“I am interested in making sure that our education system delivers the best outcomes possible for the young people of Scotland, and the evidence is substantial that the education system is doing exactly that.
“We see young people now achieving more in our schools; we see attainment at level 6 rising, equipping young people with the qualifications that they require; and we see young people leaving school to the highest level of positive destinations on record.
“I also want to make sure that we do not lose sight of the phenomenal achievements of young people in our education system today.”
Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused of embarking on a ‘moanfest’.
Davidson parried: “The education secretary has said that there is no evidence of the “explosion” in multilevel teaching that the EIS talks about. Indeed, he says, it has been a factor in Scottish education for ever.
“Well, we have the evidence, because we sent freedom of information requests to all 32 local authorities, asking them how many combined classes there are in their schools.
“Of the 238 schools that we have got information back on, 112 have classes in which three qualification levels are being taught in the same classroom, and in a further 11 schools four levels are being taught together.
“We will give the education secretary all the evidence that he asks for, but the question is, will he act on it?”
Mr Swinney said schools themselves should be allowed to decide how the curriculum is delivered.
He added: “That is what this Parliament supported when it supported curriculum for excellence—a flexible curriculum to put power back into our teaching profession to enable it to deliver on behalf of the people of Scotland.
“What we are now seeing in our schools, as I have said already, is rising attainment by our young people, an improvement in the destinations that are available for young people, a rising number of teachers being available to teach in our classrooms—a record level since 2010—and rising resources being put into schools, including £750 million from this Government that is being put directly into the hands of schools and local authorities to close the poverty-related attainment gap. That is the investment that we are seeing in Scottish education, and that is why it is delivering results for the young people of Scotland.”
He accused Davidson of “cooking up a moanfest” of complaints about education and added: “Crucially, what matters is not the litany of complaints that Ruth Davidson brings to Parliament but what is being achieved by the young people of Scotland: attainment is rising, they are gaining more highers and the number of positive destinations is improving year on year.
“That is what Scottish education is determined to deliver, that is what it is delivering and that is what I am happy to celebrate.”