Scottish ministers were not clear enough that literacy and numeracy must remain at the heart of Scotland’s revamped school curriculum, the Education Secretary has said.
John Swinney’s admission came as official statistics revealed just two-thirds of P4 and P7 pupils perform well or very well when it comes to numeracy.
That number plummeted to only 40% by S2. More than a third of youngsters at the beginning of secondary school, 36%, are not working at the expected level for their age group.
The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy said the number of Scottish P4 pupils performing well or very well has fallen for the third time in a row.
It decreased between 2013 and 2015, having done the same between 2011 and 2013.
Performance at P7 stabilised after an initial fall while there was another slight dip in S2 levels, although statisticians said the difference was so small it should be regarded as a steady performance.
Mr Swinney, also the Deputy First Minister, conceded there “hasn’t been sufficient, clear guidance given about the centrality of literacy, numeracy and wellbeing” implementing Curriculum for Excellence after it came into force in 2010/11.
He said: “I think, as a consequence of that, the teaching profession has been asked to cover a really broad range of different subjects, specialities, key skills and they have been trying to do that.
“But they haven’t had sufficient clarity that we need our young people to have the strongest foundation in literacy and numeracy because these will be the two skills that will give them the absolute foundation for life.
“That, to me, is what’s emerging as the challenge. How we go about that is by giving much clearer guidance and clarity to the teaching profession to allow them to operate on that basis.”
Asked if a lack of clarity is the fault of the curriculum or the government, Perthshire North MSP Mr Swinney delivered a verdict which does not reflect well on his predecessors, Angela Constance, Mike Russell and Fiona Hyslop.
He said: “What we’ve got to make sure is we have got that clarity, that’s what my job is about to make sure we have got that clarity.”
Boys outperformed girls in numeracy at S2 but there was no difference in the proportion of boys and girls performing well or very well in either P4 or P7. There was a fall in the performance of S2 girls between 2013 and 2015.
The performance gap between the most affluent and most deprived pupils increased at P4 and remained the same for P7 and S2 pupils. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said closing this attainment gap is her main priority.
During a visit to Dens Road Primary School in Dundee, Mr Swinney, who was appointed Education Secretary in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle, insisted “several measures” had been introduced which would not have shown up in the most recent stats.
These include establishing a national improvement framework and the attainment challenge.
He said: “I can see from my visit to this primary school this morning the work of specific advisors supporting young people in improving their numeracy skills built into the classes.”
Conservative shadow Education Secretary Liz Smith said: “These are appalling figures and they show the SNP are failing Scotland’s pupils and failing to close the attainment gap.
“The SNP has completely taken its eye of the ball when it comes to education and helping those from the most deprived backgrounds to succeed.”
Scottish Gov numeracy stats. This is what happens if you cut education budgets by 10%. They're still cutting. https://t.co/qSP5apXVtg
— Iain Gray (@IainGrayMSP) May 31, 2016
Labour’s education spokesman, former teacher Iain Gray, said: “The results are quite simply, a disgrace. They show falling performance at every stage, and the gap between children from the richest families and the rest growing. You can see how bad that gap is in the graph at the bottom of the post.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of Scotland’s largest teaching union the EIS, said: “It is significant to note that where there has been a dip, it has occurred primarily in pupils from the most deprived backgrounds.”