Swinney criticised for delaying ‘mission’ of education reform

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New legislation designed to help deliver Nicola Sturgeon’s “defining mission” of driving up standards in Scottish education has been delayed.

John Swinney, the education secretary, said a timetable to publish and consult on a new education bill had slipped, despite a promise that it would be early this year. He said that publication had been moved to “some time” this year because he needed to “chew over” more than 1,000 responses to a governance review. Opposition parties said that the delay raised further doubts over the Scottish government’s claim that education was its top priority.

International advisers appointed by the government dismissed ministers’ claims that closing a poverty-based attainment gulf in education within a decade was a realistic goal.

The deputy first minister said yesterday that he was unlikely to publish a response to the governance review, which closed last month and included proposals for devolving more powers to head teachers and the establishment of new education regions, before the council elections in May. The findings will inform the education bill.

It also emerged yesterday that a consultation on a new school funding formula, due to launch next month, has been temporarily shelved.

Mr Swinney said: “We’ve had 1,100 submissions to the governance review. I’ve got to give every opportunity to chew over what’s been said to do it justice.” Pushed on when an education bill would be published, he said: “Some time during 2017.”

Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives education spokeswoman, described the delay as embarrassing. The SNP has been criticised for the amount of time it has devoted to discussing Brexit and the constitution, rather than devolved domestic issues such as education, health and policing.

She said: “People are becoming increasingly suspicious of the SNP’s claim that education is its number one focus. Instead of publishing this bill when it said it would, the SNP has been trying to agitate for another independence referendum, using Brexit as the tool to do that. All the while, standards in schools continue to decline.”

Mr Swinney spent yesterday meeting his council of education advisers, who travelled to Edinburgh from across the world. Members will make recommendations on closing the attainment gap, improvements to Scotland’s curriculum and how best to empower teachers.

Carol Campbell, who is from Scotland but based in Canada, and Pasi Sahlberg, from Finland, backed Mr Swinney’s plan to divert £120 million a year directly to head teachers.

Dr Campbell described closing the attainment gap as an extremely important aspiration but said factors beyond classrooms, such as poverty, gender and race, lay behind the gulf. She added: “To fully close the attainment gap is challenging, there is no education system that has done it, but it’s a bold and worthwhile aspiration.”

Dr Sahlberg said: “I don’t think closing entirely the attainment gap is possible.”

Back to basics

Extensive use of high-tech gadgets such as smartphones and tablets is damaging children’s performance at school, an expert adviser to the Scottish government has claimed.

Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, said increased use of the devices may help to explain a decline in standards in Scotland and beyond. He said: “Kids are spending eight, ten, 12 hours with the gadgets. That’s time away from learning.

“This extremely heavy use of technology, multi-tasking homework with gadgets, social media, it must have an impact. We can only have educated opinions on this. Mine would be if reading is becoming more difficult because young people don’t read any more, this is what we need to do in school more — bring books back and start to read.”

John Swinney said that Dr Sahlberg’s point was one that should be looked at carefully.