Examining the examiners: New education statistics raise fundamental questions

Allow me to pose two questions of fundamental importance to our public services in Scotland.

First, who judges those who judge, polices the police, examines those who examine?

Second, should we even be judging judges, policing the police, or examining the examiners?

These questions arise every time the Scottish government publishes statistics which aim at showing how well, or otherwise, public services are performing in Scotland.

Take today for example and a raft of stats relating to education.

We learned there was a rise in the number of teachers in 2017 compared to last year, up 543 from 2016 to 51,513.

A total of 666 full-time equivalent places were funded through the government's Attainment Scotland Fund, which is designed to help close the gap between pupils from poorer and better off backgrounds.

But this was counterbalanced by the number of pupils increasing to 688,959, up by 4,611 meaning a slight drop in the ratio of pupils to teachers to 13.6.

The average class size remained static at 23.5 which is way below the promise once made - but then dropped - by the SNP of reducing them to 18. In fact, the percentage of pupils in class sizes of 18 or fewer decreased slightly from 12.7% in 2016 to 12.2% in 2017.

Credit: PA

However, what we also got today, for the second year, was the publication of how individual schools perform against the standards set under the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

Something of an innovation in Scotland, you can now go to a website and see how individual schools are doing at Primaries 1, 4 and 7 stages, and the third year of secondary school.

The website is here.

What we also learned today was, to quote from the Scottish government media release: "The proportion of pupils achieving the CfE level relevant for their stage decreases throughout the primary stages."

Yes, decreases.

​And, again to quote directly: "...a higher proportion of pupils living in the least deprived areas achieve the CfE level relevant to their stage compared to pupils living in the most deprived areas (i.e. there is a deprivation ‘gap’​)."​

Credit: PA

So the work that the First Minister has begun to close that stubborn gap between the better off and the least well off has not yet succeeded, though ministers say there are sings of improvement.​

But these figures themselves lead to that bigger question raised at the start of this blog​.

It's not clear if anyone judges judges, who make a point of stressing they are independent and, in that respect, abo​ve​ the law​,​ so to speak.

The police, meanwhile, are policed by the Inspector of Constabulary, and teachers by the Inspector of Education, once independent, but now part of the Education Scotland quango.

However, today's figures on the Curriculum performance are based on "teacher professional judgements" which is where the debate begins.

The question is whether these judgements are objective.

Lindsay Paterson, the professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, says they are not.

Academic research last conducted on results up to 2009, showed that teachers over-estimated the achievements of their pupils.

Although no new research has been done on this - perhaps there should be? - Prof Paterson says there is no reason to believe things have changed. So can we therefore take anything from these statistics?

Yes we can, argues John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister who is also in charge of education.

Teacher judgements are important, he argues.

Teachers are professionals. We should trust them to give a fair assessment of their pupils performances.

Indeed, asked about this today Mr Swinney said that the figures produced by teacher judgement were "reliable".

And the Scottish government would point to the figures out today which show variations across and within schools to prove that teachers are being fair, that these statistics mean something.

John Swinney pictured in November 2017 Credit: PA

However, Scottish government sources have stressed today that there is more to come in terms of measuring, and publishing, the attainment of pupils across Scotland.

By next summer using what are called 'standardised assessments' - so called as they will be the same nationwide - ministers, councils, and parents will have a much wider mix of information available to them.

There are currently plans afoot to have a CfE 'dashboard' which will be available on line to show the results of these standardised assessments by schools, and council areas.

Parents will be able to look at this information, which will combine the teacher judgement with the outside assessments, and even compare one school to another, the sources say.

Part of the information about each school will be measures of deprivation which will allow a proper 'like for like' comparisons.

A parent from an area of poverty will, for example, be able to look at their child's schools performance and if it is not as good as a school in a similarly deprived area ask the crucial question: "Why?"

Now, it is fair to say there is some scepticism about this with some in the education world believing that this innovation will not be as it seems - that the assessments and judgements will somehow be amalgamated.

It would also, some believe, go against a promise made by the Scottish government to the main education union, the EIS, that there would be no publication of figures which allow school by school comparison.

However, it appears that Scotland is moving to a position where we do examine those who examine. The question remains to what extent we do that, and how useful it will be, to parents in particular.