CUTS to subject specialists, advisers and teacher support networks may be the cause of falling exam results, according to a new report.

An analysis of the falling exam pass rates, published on Thursday evening by the Scottish Government, also cites an growing gap in attainment between the richest and poorest pupils in the country.

Bridging that gap, as well as improving education standards, has long been a key priority for the Scottish Government, which critics now argue they have failed on.

Last night, trade unions and experts spoke out about the contents of the report which had been commissioned by Education Secretary John Swinney last year.

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One critic described it as a “shoddy piece of work” while politicians were quick to blame Swinney personally, saying he was “in denial” about the SNP’s education record.

In the report, Education Scotland states that “learning and teaching support” should be provided “where there are specific issues identified.” It also states that there had to be “increased attention to supporting subject networks and events across all subjects.”

It added that it would be “helping to establish subject networks where none currently exist” and “ brokering links between high performing departments and those where performance is weaker”.

Experts say that these extra supports would not be needed if the number of subject advisors, previously employed by local authorities, and networks for teachers had not declined over the years, leaving many without the expert support they used to have.

Local authorities used to employ subject advisers who could act as a port of call for teachers who needed help or advice on how to teach certain parts of the curriculum more effectively.

The report also admits that children “who are lower attaining are not improving at the same rate as higher attaining young people” and also controversially suggests that “pass rates can be improved by removing pupils who are on the border line of passing a Higher course.”

The number of teachers who are specialists in their fields has also declined in the past decade, which has been cited by trade union chiefs as part of the decline in standards.


Figures obtained by the Herald in 2018 show that between 2008 and 2018, the number of subject specialists in secondary schools in Scotland had fallen by 11 per cent overall, with some areas seeing as much as a 44% fall in numbers.

The number of English teachers had fallen by 20% in the decade up to 2018, while the number of French teachers had plummeted by 32%.

German teachers fell by 44%, maths teachers by 15% and general science teachers had declined by 11%.

Education experts also told the Herald the network of teaching advisors, who would be able to answer questions and to give advice on certain subjects or how to teach parts of the curriculum has been destroyed in many areas.

A 2012 Government advisory group paper on science and engineering education, cites the decline stating that the Curriculum for Excellence model of education was being implemented against a backdrop of “loss of subject principal/assistant principal teachers... loss of local authority subject advisers and subject networks, and a loss of specialist subject staff in education Scotland the SQA.".

READ MORE: John Swinney defends Scottish education amid dip in science and maths performance 

The NASUWT union said that teachers had long been calling for more support, and while networks were needed, they could not be introduced as extra work for already stretched educators.

Chris Keates, the union’s Acting General Secretary said: “It is clear that the process of curriculum and qualifications reform has placed teachers and school leaders under intense pressure and they have continually expressed concern about the lack of support available to them.

“While it is welcome that the Scottish Government has noted there has been a decline in support, ministers need to take action to address this. Teacher networks may have a role to play in providing the support that is required, but they cannot be simply imposed on overworked, overburdened and stressed staff in schools. It is clear that more direct support is needed from central and local government to ensure schools have the time, space, capacity and resources to continue to provide high quality education to pupils.”

Seamus Searson, the head of the SSTA union, said that teachers were “working harder than ever” and said: “This is something that has been coming for some time. I don’t think the teachers are working any less hard, they are working harder than they have ever done.

“They just don’t have the space to do everything they should be doing, they’ve got classes up to the maximum and some of the more specialist subjects are being pushed out of the curriculum.

“Unless they get 25/30 children in a class, then often the course doesn’t run. We often hear that teachers are being pressured into taking classes of multiple levels, for example National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher in the same class, in order to retain the subject.”

Along with the reasons for possible exam results decline, the report also outlines the figures for last year’s national five, Higher and advanced higher courses.

Across 46 subjects, only 13 had an increase in the number of people achieving grades A-C at Higher level, while 26 saw a fall in passes, and one stayed the same.

In Advanced Higher sciences, a drastic decline in the number of people taking the exams was recorded along with a fall in pass rates.

The number of people taking advanced higher physics fell by 13%, and passes fell by 14.1% while in chemistry at the same level, 5.4% fewer people took the subject and the pass rate was “stable.”

Meanwhile an independent think tank warned there was a “clear downward trend” in English and that “modern language is in crisis”.

Keir Bloomer, from Reform Scotland disputed the education minister’s explanation that “annual volatility” was to blame for the year-on-year decline and that more time was needed for improvement.

Mr Bloomer, the former director of education and chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council, said that the pass rate in English at Higher level is “not an annual fluctuation but a clear trend”.

He added: “The report is a shoddy piece of work. The information presented is not consistent from subject to subject - even the format varies.

“The serious drops in several mainstream academic subjects is worrying. It would be fair to describe the pass rate in maths as fluctuating in this way but, in English, there is a clear downward trend. Despite the modest success of Spanish, modern languages is in crisis. Overall, this is another set of disappointing statistics that had to be dragged out of the government.”

The Scottish Greens and Lib Dems yesterday called for Mr Swinney to make an urgent statement to parliament on Tuesday, while Iain Gray, Labour’s shadow health spokesman said he must “face up to the problems caused by years of mismanagement of education, and confirm that the review will encompass these falls in attainment.”

He added: “Since taking power in 2007, over a decade ago, the SNP has presided over a continual decline in the quality of education in Scotland. John Swinney has been in denial over the situation and the significant issues facing Scotland’s education system.

“The report’s findings make the upcoming full review of Curriculum for Excellence, including broad general education (BGE) and the senior phase, absolutely crucial.

“Education was supposed to be the Government’s top priority, and yet pupils are missing out on opportunities to study a greater breadth of subjects at school and we see a year on year decline in pupil performance.

“Scottish Labour has been clear that any review must be comprehensive and look at the wider issues facing education in Scotland, including the impact of multi-level teaching, exam related attainment trends, not least the year on year fall in Higher pass rates and also investigate how the three-year BGE impacts on subject choice which is reducing both enrolments and numbers of subjects studied by each pupil in certain subject areas.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “We are seeing steady, incremental gains in attainment across the broad general education. Most recent data shows the attainment gap is closing and a record proportion of pupils going on to positive destinations including further study, training or work. .

“Regional Improvement Collaboratives are already working with teachers to support improvement and strengthen capacity. It is for councils to ensure that they are providing the appropriate support for teaching and learning in schools based on local needs and circumstances.

“There are a number of factors that may have influenced exam results, and annual variation in results by subject is expected.

“My focus is on ensuring that curriculum and assessment are aligned, better supporting professional learning and development and maintaining a clear focus on enhancing learning and teaching.I will continue to do that in my regular discussions with partners on performance.”