The results of the latest Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) were published earlier today. The publication contains data on literacy performance in Primary 4 (P4), Primary 7 (P7) and Secondary 2 (S2) in 2016, and includes comparisons to 2012 and 2014 results. It also includes results from questionnaires with pupils and teachers.
While the results show a generally stable position in performance between 2014 and 2016, the statistics also show a drop in writing performance for S2 pupils which is of particular concern. The Scottish Government is committed to improving performance within education in Scotland.
I therefore welcome the opportunity to make a statement to Parliament, reflecting on the results of the SSLN and setting out what I intend to do about the issues they raise.
In order to understand the factors behind these results, I have looked at independent analysis of Scotland's education system provided by both the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) 2015 review of Scottish education, and Education Scotland's 'Quality and Improvement in Scottish Education' report published in March, which summarises findings from inspections and other evaluation activities. I have also considered the information provided by the National Improvement Framework which was developed in response to the last SSLN literacy results.
These sources highlight four key areas where our education system needs to improve:
We need to get better at tracking the progress of each individual pupil over the course of their school career. This requirement has meant that we have not been as effective as we need to be in identifying where young people may need additional support.
We need to be clearer about the standards expected in our classrooms. This has meant that teachers have not always been certain about what is required to meet each Curriculum for Excellence level in literacy, in numeracy and across the curriculum areas.
Too much well-meaning but overbearing guidance has been produced nationally, locally and sometimes in schools themselves. This has created too much clutter in the curriculum and can divert teachers' time from learning and teaching.
We need to ensure literacy skills are fully embedded across the curriculum. Inspection evidence found that the potential impact of establishing literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing areas as cross-cutting priorities for all teachers has not been fully realised.
When we published the SSLN Literacy data in 2015, it became clear that we needed a broader, and much deeper, level of data to secure improvement for Scotland's children. To address that, we developed the National Improvement Framework and now have data reflecting the progress of all children at key points of Curriculum for Excellence.
We now have more data than ever on children's progress under Curriculum for Excellence, including the attainment levels in literacy and numeracy of every child in P1, P4, P7 and S3. So, while the SSLN statistics are disappointing, we published data in December 2016, based on teacher judgement, demonstrating that 84% of young people in Scotland achieve the appropriate Curriculum for Excellence level for writing by the end of S3.
While the SSLN survey helps identify emerging issues, the National Improvement Framework provides us with data that allows us to target improvement in specific parts of Scotland. National standardised assessments on literacy and numeracy will further support teacher judgment on where a pupil is doing well and where further support may be required.
In addition, we are already taking action in response to the specific areas for improvement I have identified.
In order to improve the tracking of each child's progress, through the National Improvement Framework, we now have a clear line of sight between national, local authority and school level data, ensuring that we can all focus on where improvement needs to happen.
In order to clarify the standards expected, we published benchmarks for literacy and numeracy in August 2016. Benchmarks for all curricular areas were published earlier this year.
In order to de-clutter the curriculum, we have significantly streamlined the volume of advice and guidance. Eighty-five per cent of the content that had been on the Education Scotland online service for the curriculum and assessment has now been removed. The National Improvement Hub will be the key source of material for teachers moving forward. In September 2016, Inspectors evaluated the workload demands placed on teachers in each of the 32 local authorities and are continuing to monitor progress, particularly in areas where too much bureaucracy was identified.
In order to improve literacy across the curriculum, the literacy benchmarks make clear the standards that are expected across the curriculum and apply to all teachers. A focus on raising attainment in literacy has been included in the new school inspection model that was introduced in September 2016. Through the Scottish Attainment Challenge, we are funding and supporting the development of a range of new strategies in literacy to improve children's attainment and close the attainment gap. The most effective strategies from Scottish schools are being published on the 'interventions for equity' framework on the National Improvement Hub. We have also entered a new partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation which will give Scottish teachers access to strategies that are proven to work, based on a global evidence base.
These actions are all part of a wider programme of comprehensive reforms, prompted by previous SSLN results and based firmly on the independent findings of the 2015 OECD review of Scottish education. There are a number of significant developments in this area worth highlighting:
We are increasing investment and support in the early years through the significant expansion of early learning and childcare. This will help to address the gap in vocabulary at P1 between children from more deprived and less deprived circumstances.
We are building the capacity of the teaching workforce, by investing in the professional learning and recruitment of teachers and introducing new programmes to train and develop headteachers.
We are developing targeted interventions for schools through the £750 million Scottish Attainment Challenge programme. The Challenge will tackle the poverty-related attainment gap by targeting resources at the children, schools and communities most in need, focussing specifically on literacy, along with numeracy and health and wellbeing. All schools now have access to Attainment Advisors and, from April this year, £120 million is being provided directly to headteachers to use for activities and interventions that will lead to improvements in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing in their schools.
The Pupil Equity Fund demonstrates our clear commitment to put schools and communities at the heart of the education system. Next month, we will publish the next steps in the review of governance. These steps will support the National Improvement Framework and ensure the education system puts children, parents, teachers and schools at the centre.
These reforms will provide teachers and schools with the tools – through the literacy benchmarks and the standardised assessments – and the resources – through the Scottish Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Fund – they need to improve literacy. And they will ensure a relentless focus on developing the skills that are essential to literacy development from a child's birth, right through to when they leave school.
However, in acknowledging the challenges presented by the SSLN results, I am determined that we do not lose sight of the many strengths in Scotland's education system.
The data from the SSLN itself tells us that pupils in Scottish schools are highly engaged with their learning, and motivated to do well. Consistently over the six-year life of the survey, over 94% of pupils said they wanted to do well, and felt they usually did do well, in school. The majority also see the clear value of what they learn both for life outside school and for future employability.
Teachers also report the use of varied teaching and learning techniques – exactly as Curriculum for Excellence requires them to do – and generally high levels of confidence in delivering the literacy aspects of the curriculum. Teachers also report high levels of confidence in the use of information communication technology (ICT) to enhance learning and, particularly in our primary schools, that it is used regularly for delivering learning and support to pupils.
At a time when many young people are sitting examinations, we should also acknowledge the progress we have seen in results in the national qualifications. In 2016, the number of Advanced Higher passes reached a record high, while the number of Higher passes was second only to the 2015 record.
A record proportion of young people from Scotland's most deprived communities are continuing their education, entering training, or getting a job after they leave school – 88.7% of school leavers from these communities went into a positive initial destination in 2015 and 2016, the highest ever proportion and up from 83.9% in 2011 and 2012.
So, in fully accepting the case for reform confirmed by today's statistics, we must not fall into the trap of ignoring the tangible strength in our education system that is delivering well for a great many of young people in Scotland.
In conclusion, the latest phase of reform is only now starting to come into force, with £120 million given to headteachers to spend on improving attainment just last month, the outcome of the governance review expected next month and the introduction of standardised assessments later this year.
These actions will not deliver an overnight solution: it will take time before we see their full effect. However, it is clear we must stay the course and continue to make the changes that are necessary to strengthen Scottish education. This requires an unwavering focus on improving Scotland's education system for every child and we are doing exactly that.
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