Over the last decade or more, morale in the teaching profession has plummeted and the relationship between educators and government has become dangerously frayed. This is, undoubtedly, a really tough time to be a teacher.
Perhaps that explains why, for many people, the decision to put someone from the profession into the top job felt like a signal that things might, maybe, if we’re lucky, start to get better.
Gilruth’s predecessors in the role under Sturgeon’s leadership (Angela Constance, John Swinney and Shirley-Anne Somerville) all failed – despite previous experience and big reputations, the job proved to be too vast, too complex, and too challenging for them.
Many of the biggest recent failures in education policy have been rooted in the fact that those in charge just did not, and apparently could not, understand the full implications of the problems in front of them. The 2020 results scandal, in which the government and SQA attempted to suppress the grades of pupils in the poorest schools, is a good example of this, but it is far from the only one – the outcomes for which John Swinney eventually had to apologise were, in fact, easily predictable by people who knew the things that the education secretary and all of his advisers did not.
Might Jenny Gilruth be different?
Covid presented – and continues to present – an enormous range of impossibly complex problems for schools to deal with; in contrast, most of the rhetoric from politicians and pundits has been – and continues to be – incredibly simplistic. The dominant post-pandemic narrative is still centred around the idea that we need kids to ‘catch up’, as if their formative experiences can just be poured into their heads at a later date, and few politicians are willing to seriously dissent from that position.
“I don’t think you can ‘fill in’ these gaps in our children and young people’s learning,” Gilruth tells me.
This is a potentially explosive admission, but it’s a view that also happens to align far more closely with reality.
That’s not to say that she isn’t worried about supporting the young people who lived through Covid. She talks about visiting a number of schools in Dundee and talking to students across various year groups. All of them, she points out, have been profoundly affected, and some specific issues really stand out: there are, she says, persistent dips in attendance that appear concentrated in particular groups, something that she believes is connected to their experiences during lockdown.
“This cohort of young people will be with us for years to come and we will have to carefully work with them in supporting them to get through, because I’m very worried about how their education was disrupted and what that means for their outcomes.”
This type of thinking continues into issues like pupil behaviour in schools, which anyone who speaks to teachers knows is an increasing concern. While Gilruth recognises that there is a real problem to be addressed, she doesn’t accept that it can be engaged with in simple terms or, crucially, that it can be understood in isolation from the pandemic.
“Behaviour is a big political topic at the moment,” she says. “You and I could have had this conversation 10 years ago and it would have been a hot political topic at that time. I don’t think it’s the type of behaviour the press necessarily think it is in terms of the pandemic.
“I think it’s changes in ways that people interact with each other because of lockdown. I think it’s changes in communication. I think our kids are really struggling and I think some of our staff are as well. So no, I don’t think we can have this kind of rush to catch up because I think fundamentally the system that we’re dealing with is completely different than what it was before the pandemic.”
This all feels quite different, both in terms of tone and content, to the conversation I would likely have been having were a Somerville or a Swinney still in post. The increased politicisation of education since 2015 has seen discussion around schooling become increasingly shallow and reactive, and I get the sense that Gilruth is bothered by that as well.
Her refusal to cling to easy but hollow proclamations of Covid catch up, or the approved lines that they hope are going to be picked up for the newspaper, is reassuring – but there’s a huge and obvious problem. Put simply, it’s hard to see how all this can be compatible with the simplistic and ineffective ‘closing the attainment gap’ rhetoric to which the government is still attached.
“Yeah I think it’s difficult,” she concedes. “So, undoubtedly, it’s still the governments ambition and aspiration to close a poverty-related attainment gap. We’re making good progress, but the pandemic has offset a lot of this work.”
Gilruth is not the first to make that claim of “good progress”, but is it really true? I point out that the attainment gap in terms of Highers pass rates is now higher than it was pre-pandemic, that literacy and numeracy levels have never really changed in all these years, and that the one measure that has shown some improvement, the number of pupils achieving positive destinations after school, isn’t reliable because the government still counts zero-hours contracts, and refuses to differentiate between those accessing higher education in colleges and those attending universities.
For all the positive rhetoric, the data just does not bear out the claims that progress was being made until Covid got in the way, and so I ask if we might be approaching a point, or could ever reach a point, where the government might be willing to accept that major aspects of recent education policy have not worked?
“I’m not going to walk away from the approach that I’ve inherited – no. I think we still have that approach and we have it in place for good reason, but I think the wider point is the culture in our schools has changed post pandemic. It doesn’t mean we walk away from our aspiration to close the gap.”
But there is, nonetheless, at least a recognition that the government’s rhetoric over the years, and the discourse it has generated, has actually made it more difficult to have the sort of discussions that the new education secretary would rather be engaged in: “I think my party has put schools front and centre of closing the poverty related attainment gap in a way that doesn’t always recognise that actually other factors have huge contributions.
“I think that the wider discourse is lost in the mix of ‘closing the poverty related attainment gap’.”
It’s clear that Gilruth wants to have more complex conversations about the state of Scottish education, even if the constraints within which she has to work are already becoming obvious, and although her concession is ultimately a minor one, it still feels like more progress than has been made in many, many years.
Read part two of the interview online and in the Sunday Herald on September 10.