Literacy and numeracy: Education Secretary statement

Ministerial statement by Cabinet Secretary for Education Jenny Gilruth on literacy and numeracy on Tuesday 12 December 2023.

Presiding Officer. 

I welcome the opportunity today to update Parliament on a range of evidence concerning the performance of Scottish education.

Today sees publication of the Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels (commonly known as ACEL) for the last academic year (2022/23). 

ACEL reports on the proportion of all pupils in Primary 1, Primary 4, Primary 7 and S3, who have achieved the expected Curriculum for Excellence levels in Literacy and Numeracy.

It is the most comprehensive national data set on attainment in literacy and numeracy and is predicated on teacher judgment.

  • The proportion of primary pupils attaining the expected levels in both literacy and numeracy have increased. This is the case for children from both the most and the least deprived areas.
  • The attainment gap in literacy in primary schools has decreased.
  • And at secondary level, we have seen increases in attainment across the board, whilst the attainment gap reduces.

It is further worth remembering that this summer saw the overall pass rates for National 5, Highers and Advanced Highers above pre-pandemic levels in 2019 and the poverty related attainment gap narrowing.

I hope that everyone in this chamber will welcome these achievements of our pupils, their teachers and our support staff.

Nonetheless, Presiding Officer, I do not shy from the challenge presented by the OECD’s post-Covid edition of PISA.

It is an international sample survey which Scotland participates in. It measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge to meet real-life challenges. 

But it is not a data-set which should be read in isolation.

To understand the accurate picture across our Education system, we have to fully consider a range of different factors.

Today the Government has published the annual pupil, staff and ELC census which provides a wealth of information including:

  • teacher numbers;
  • pupil-teacher ratios;
  • the number of young people reported as having an additional support need; and
  • attendance and exclusion rates

Taken in the round this evidence shows that the pandemic has had a profound impact on the attendance and achievement of Scotland’s young people.

But I want to be clear with Parliament that this trajectory – be that on attendance, on behaviour, or on PISA – is not one this Government accepts.

So we must commit to real terms improvements in Scotland’s education system; for our young people, for their parents and for the future of this country.

Education can only improve the life chances of young people who are supported and encouraged by their parents or carers to attend.

And since being appointed as Cabinet Secretary, I have expressed my concerns about the ongoing impact of the pandemic in our classrooms. 

Figures published today show an attendance rate sits at 90.2% in 2022-23, a decrease from 92% last year.

Across the country some Councils have higher absence rates than others; further, there is variation in certain year groups.  

Anecdotal evidence of unrecorded absence from class continues to suggest that whilst some pupils might be attending school, they are not necessarily present in class.

That is not good enough.

Education Scotland, at my request, has undertaken work to better understand the current barriers and the challenges experienced by schools, children and young people and their families which influence school attendance and behaviour.  And their report “Improving Attendance: Understanding the Issues” published at the end of last month.

Building on that work, I have tasked the Interim Chief Executive of Education Scotland, Gillian Hamilton, to work directly with Directors of Education to drive improvements on attendance as a matter of priority. This will require Local Authority leadership.

Presiding Officer, the role of Scotland’s dedicated teachers is critical to improving our education system.

Whilst the pupil teacher ratio remains the lowest in the UK, at 13.2, figures published today show a fall in teacher numbers by 0.3%.

And although that is a very small change, Parliament will recall that the Scottish Government made an additional ringfenced investment of over £145 million to protect teacher numbers. 

It is therefore extremely disappointing that a number of Local Authorities did not choose to use the additional funding to protect their teacher numbers. Conversely, I know some Local Authorities went above and beyond to protect their teacher numbers.

I thank them for that and for investing in better outcomes for their young people.

We have written today to each of the local authorities where the number of teachers has reduced to seek an explanation and I will meet with COSLA on this matter later this week. 

And whilst the Government will of course consider these reductions on a case-by-case basis, I will continue to reserve the right to withhold funding allocated to protect teacher numbers where that has not been the case.

Fundamentally, we cannot hope to improve attendance, behaviour or attainment with fewer teachers in our schools.

Presiding Officer, one issue raised by PISA and in the recent BISSR research I should say, has been pupils’ use of mobile phones.

And as Cabinet Secretary, I cannot unilaterally ban mobile phones.  That power of course rests with head teachers and our local authorities.

But I want to examine all the evidence on this and encourage schools to take the action they deem necessary.

So we will work to provide refreshed guidance to schools on the use of mobile phones in schools, as part of that joint action plan to respond to the BISSR research.

This will take a range of factors into account – including considering pupils’ personal circumstances, particularly of course those of young carers. 

But our starting position is that head teachers are empowered to take the steps that they consider appropriate – and if they see fit, the guidance will support the use of banning mobile phones in schools.

Presiding Officer, I want to turn now to reflecting directly on Scotland’s PISA results.

Now in absolute terms it is true that Scotland mirrored the overall international trend of a reduction in PISA scores in reading and maths between 2018 and 2022.  We are not unique in that respect.

And as has been noted, the OECD have referred to this year’s results as the ‘Covid edition’.

Covid impacted and it continues to impact on educational outcomes. Whether in Wales, Northern Ireland or England, for Maths and Reading the trajectory on scores is a downward one.

And across the OECD, as was the case in 2018, Scotland is above the average for reading, and similar to the OECD average in relation to Maths and Science.

So the challenge to Government is this – is average good enough?

Presiding Officer, I don’t think so.

Whilst it is true to say that PISA provides only a snap-shot of the data, the results should serve as a wake up to all Governments.

And I hope Parliament hears the gravity with which I am considering these results; the new ‘Post-Covid’ norm cannot be allowed to define the educational outcomes of the next generation.

And building on my direct engagement with the OECD last month, next year I will meet with the OECD’s Director for Education & Skills, Andreas Schleicher to ensure Scotland continues to learn from other countries and starts to improve her international standing on Education once more.

And it is worth reminding the Chamber that Curriculum for Excellence was endorsed by the OECD in 2021 as the right approach for Scottish education.

However I recognise the need to improve our Curriculum - in a planned and systematic way as has recommended by the OECD.

We need to do so, to ensure it remains relevant, forward looking and ultimately supports high quality teaching and learning. 

That is why next year we will begin a Curriculum improvement cycle. 

This will include curriculum content, the role of knowledge, transitions between primary and secondary and alignment between the broad general education and the senior phase.

Presiding Officer, my view is that Maths education requires to be a central focus for improvement – indeed, it is critical when considering the 18 point reduction in Scotland’s PISA score.

Maths will therefore be the first curricular area to be revised.    

And I want this work nationally to be led by a Maths specialist working alongside our National Response to Improving Mathematics.

That specialist will have a key role in the full-scale update to the maths curriculum, which will begin in 2024, and be tested with Scotland’s teachers later next year.

They will provide a key role in driving the improvements required, learning from the outputs from PISA, and a range of other evidence sources, to improve Scotland’s performance in maths.

Further, to support the implementation of our new maths curriculum, the interim Chief Inspector has agreed that a maths national thematic inspection with a focus on teaching and learning will be taken forward in 2024, reporting in next autumn.

Finally, the Council of Deans will convene their Initial Teacher Education Group on Maths education.  That Group will ensure that initial teacher education aligns with the latest developments in maths and numeracy.

Presiding Officer, on English and Literacy, the National Response to Improving Literacy, is taking forward work in terms of identifying priorities for improvement.

I have also asked the interim Chief Inspector to begin a thematic inspection of literacy and English nationally, to help inform the required to update and to improve the literacy and English curriculum. Literacy and English will flow as the next priority for curriculum update, following Maths.

Children’s speech, language and communication has also been an area particularly affected since the onset of the Covid pandemic. 

And the Government has invested in a new team of Speech and Language Specialists, with a clear focus on supporting preventative work on Speech and Language Development in the early years.

The Curriculum update will therefore require to embed learning on speech and language in reviewing our curriculum content, to better ensure progression and drive improvement.

As Lucy Crehan has noted, the history of PISA can be traced back to an American President back in the 1980s, who was keen to drive national educational improvement – yet he was faced with resistance by state level governments.

That’s not, thankfully, the case in Scotland.

Here, our Councils’ collective ambition to raise absolute attainment in literacy and numeracy and narrow the attainment gap, are reflected in their new 3 year stretch aims for progress by 2025/26, which also published today.

And if those stretch aims are realised, compared to 2016/17, we would see:

  • overall attainment in literacy and numeracy increase by around 13% and 9% respectively;
  • and the poverty related attainment gap narrowing in literary and numeracy by around 30% over the lifetime of the Scottish Attainment Challenge.  

I am very grateful to COSLA for the progress thus far. And I commit to working our Councils, in the spirit of Verity House, to drive the improvements we need to see.

Presiding Officer, I recognise that the experience of education has changed - for our young people, their teachers and parents and carers.

Covid has had a profound impact on attendance, behaviour and achievement.

But fundamentally, we need to disrupt the PISA trajectory and drive improvements across school education that will also be informed by working with our international council of education advisers and working with COSLA, national agencies and professional associations.

To that end, the next steps I have set out today are part of the solution – but they are not the whole picture.

Because I agree that a knee jerk political response is not going to help our young people

I believe that Scotland is at an educational juncture; perhaps radical reform to our qualifications system is the answer.

Some argue persuasively that is the case and I look forward to returning to the Chamber in the New Year to debate these proposals more fully.

But others point to the need for improvement versus radical reform, recognising the extraordinary pressures our teachers are working under.

Working with them to plot a pragmatic route forward might just be the way.

Presiding Officer.

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