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Highland Council accused of ‘accepting mediocrity’ as primary school attainment sits bottom of the pile

Highland Council education
Highland Council ranked bottom for literacy and numeracy in Scottish Government data. Photo: Shutterstock

Highland Council’s education chairman is defending its performance on a Scottish benchmarking report.

The Local Government Benchmarking Framework places Highland 32nd out of 32 councils in primary school attainment.

Looking at performance in Primary 1, 4 and 7, Highland lags behind the national average in both literacy and numeracy.

Less than half of Highland pupils made the grade in literacy, with Highland scoring 49% against a national average of 67%.

In numeracy, the national average is 75% but Highland scored just 60%.

Councillor Andrew Jarvie says the council is on a “gradual march to the bottom”.

However, education chairman John Finlayson says the results should be treated with caution.

Not a typical year

Mr Finlayson says that the data for the report was gathered in July 2020, when schools were still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic and home schooling.

Furthermore, there was no external assessment information, so councils had to award grades based on teachers’ best estimates.

The report says a direct comparison should not be made between current and previous years.

“The validity of such an exercise when the ongoing hidden harms of Covid were unknown… calls into question why this exercise was carried out during a period of recovery,” said Mr Finlayson.

Education chairman John Finlayson. Picture by Sandy McCook

Mr Finlayson says the pandemic hit Highland harder than many other areas of Scotland.

“Highland has the highest numbers of schools of any local authority spread across vast areas of rurality,” he says. “Our challenge was immense.

“Highland communities have also experienced the other harms of Covid in higher levels of unemployment, welfare needs, ill health and other problems.”

With this in mind, the Highland Council made a conscious decision to prioritise health and wellbeing over education attainment.

‘This doesn’t wash’

Mr Jarvie says this explanation “doesn’t wash.” He points out that Highland Council actually had the lowest level of staff absences in Scotland.

“All councils were hit by Covid,” he says. “Everyone was in the same boat.

“This isn’t some unexpected black swan, it’s been declining year after year.”

Aside from the bottom-of-the-pile scores in primary school attainment, Highland also placed 23rd and 21st at SCQF Levels 5 and 6.

There was good news regarding children from deprived backgrounds, with Highland moving up to 14th place from 24th last year.

However, Highland Council also ranked 27th out of 32 for pupils going on to positive destinations after school.

Councillor Andrew Jarvie accused the council of ‘accepting mediocrity’. Picture by Sandy McCook.

“This council needs to admit it has a problem with educational attainment,” says Mr Jarvie.

“I’m angry and genuinely hurt that I’ve been here for five years and I’ve been able to do nothing. Our young people are still unable to achieve their best for their future. That does weigh heavily on me… this acceptance of mediocrity.”

Improvement journey

Mr Finlayson delivered a robust defence at a recent meeting of Highland Council. He says the council is on an improvement journey, and staff are becoming demoralised by criticism.

“While scrutiny and questioning is indeed right and proper, we also need to focus on what has been achieved and how well our schools and young people have coped,” he said.

Highland Council wants to take stock of what pupils and schools achieved through Covid. Photo: Shutterstock.

Executive Chief Officer Nicky Grant reflected on Highland’s achievements beyond attainment scores:

“I have confidence that our staff, our families and our young people have ambition, aspiration and talent,” she said. “I would welcome a school system in the future that measures all the capacities and abilities that we see on a daily basis in our Highland schools and communities. ”

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