Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Numeracy and literacy problems in Scotland – Frances McKie


The current furore about Primary One assessments is obviously linked to the fact that Scotland, like England, has a continuing problem with numeracy and literacy-deeply embedded in our education system.  For over 20 years, sporadic panic attacks in politicians have done absolutely nothing to help: exchanging blame is pointless until  we  work from knowledge of previous developments and their  long term effects; we need to understand how we came to be in this particular situation before any meaningful improvement can be made.  And we must of course take account of the current environment  as well as the past.

And, for honest investigation to result in positive change, it is also important to accept that annual assessment statistics, including those of the SQA, are neither meaningful nor helpful until we are clear about varied standards and methods: measurements must be genuine.

This is the story of falling levels of Literacy and Numeracy, as far as I understand and remember it. I qualified as a teacher of English in 1974 and retired in 2014.

In 1965, the Scottish Primary Memorandum introduced a huge change for teaching and learning in primary schools.  Amongst other things, formal learning of grammar and the chanting of multiplication tables were on their way out. During the next decade, these developments were enforced by a very authoritarian inspectorate but, like all changes, they grew wings on the back of misinterpretations so that, very soon, unintended consequences, like the disappearance of deep understanding and command of the structures of language and maths and deteriorating standards of general literacy and numeracy, began to appear.

In 1977, the Munn Report led to the arrival of Standard Grade English. The structure of that assessment allowed an absolute cover-up of the growing inability of even very able children to write confidently, accurately and independently in order to express their own ideas.  By 2000, 90% of Scottish fourth year pupils were being awarded  at least a General Certificate (perceived to be  a  “pass”)  in Standard Grade English. At the same time, concern was being raised at last about the growing levels of adult and school-leaver illiteracy. This contradiction – the warning of  serious problems to come – seems to have been  ignored by the government at that time.

By 1994 the Secretary of State for Scotland had accepted recommendations that led to the introduction of Higher Still.  While this might have been an opportunity to check that every child in Scotland was being helped to gain command of their own language and a confident grasp of basic maths concepts, Higher Still was quickly identified  as a yet another cover-up: an evasion of rigorous assessment of these things. At this point English teachers throughout Scotland tried to protest against the changes.

It is not always appreciated how difficult and intimidating it can be to challenge changes in educational policy from the level of the classroom. As an example of how such terrible mistakes are sometimes enforced, the hounding and bullying of Tony McManus, a highly regarded teacher of English and leader of the protest, is widely known.

Eventually, in 2000, the fiasco of Higher Still across all subjects was exposed.  When candidates received their results that year, chaos emerged. In the aftermath a Glasgow headmaster was given the job of trying to retrieve some credibility for English assessments by reviewing the whole course.

Furthermore, just as Higher Still was causing such difficulties, primary schools were introduced to the next big change: from “ 5-14” to  “Curriculum for Excellence”.  Although many teachers queried the increased vagueness of attainment and assessment criteria within the documents, the administration ploughed on over their concerns.

By the time Curriculum  for Excellence and the associated changes of assessment procedures reached enforcement stage at secondary level, teachers of every subject were faced with huge tomes of vague but complicated references to “experiences and outcomes” which were a nightmare to assimilate, never mind implement.  These caused such confusion that some schools either delayed implementation or – in the private sector- abandoned the Scottish system altogether. But the steamroller effect prevailed:  yet another damaging development moved on over teachers and pupils too overwhelmed and exhausted to argue – while other stakeholders, including employers and universities, became even less confident  about what Scottish Exam Certificates actually guaranteed about attainment- especially in literacy and maths.

Most importantly however, throughout all these curriculum changes and chaotic assessments, the real tragedy has been that no-one ever stopped to reflect on the fact that children going through state schools in Scotland were being  denied  the old attention to basic command of language and maths. 

In fact, sadly, at every single stage, this issue  has been, and still is, “the elephant in the room” that no politician seems brave enough to address: while each child deserves the chance to achieve a confident grasp of basic structures and patterns of language and maths before the age of 12 the likelihood of experiencing such teaching and learning has been fading from  Scottish primary and secondary schools, in fits and starts, since the 1970s; we have a problem that is now generations old.

It is long established that confidence in language and maths, for most children, comes most easily and successfully from interaction with teachers who are themselves totally in command of the subjects.  And this is crucial: to understand the profession- it is teachers whose genius and professional skills invent and reinvent, ceaselessly, new ways to explain and reinforce knowledge and understanding in interesting and reassuring ways. For too long, we have been asking primary teachers to perform miracles when more and more were never offered the knowledge and understanding themselves. And, as a result, for 30 years, secondary Maths, English and Modern Language teachers have been trying to build on sand.

Meanwhile, however, the various and numerous changes to assessment procedures have allowed successive executives to convince themselves, despite universities having to introduce classes in language and writing skills and growing levels of adult illiteracy, that their innovations were working.

It is a simple rule that we should measure what we value; it is freely acknowledged that giving a child his own command of language and basic maths is a vital gateway to confident progression and success  across the curriculum and crucial, empowering life-skills.  But for far too long, as the SEB and Scotvec gave way first to Higher Still and, more recently, the new Nationals, we did not appear to place a high value  on the accurate use of English or confident grasp of basic Maths.  If they are not measured rigorously and consistently, poor language and maths skills will not affect grades or statistics. As long as we were just talking to ourselves with our own measurements, we could indeed, ridiculously, reassure ourselves that all was well. For decades, within Scotland, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” appeared again and again.  To this day, assessment procedures continue to disguise reality.

Therefore, in 2018 – to shriek yet again with sudden, unhelpful horror that other countries do so much better in English and Maths- is disingenuous. The problem has been growing for a very, very long time. We have been kidding ourselves- and we were wrong.

Curriculum for Excellence can indeed still bring excellence, but only if we are willing to learn from the history and outcomes and mistakes of earlier changes. If all political parties, just for once, on this vital issue, co-operated  to understand and accept, honestly, how we came to have such a problem with literacy and numeracy, at the core of our education system;  if we acknowledge, at last, the true nature of the vital missing elements of teaching, learning and assessments, solutions will be- immediately-  obvious and effective at every level.

Frances McKie is a retired teacher of English with a continued interest in  the importance of language throughout the curriculum