As the general election looms, the SNP’s record in government has been under increasing pressure.

While the vote in June will elect members to Westminster, it has been the devolved policy of education that has been under the microscope.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

The Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has been behind a number of attacks on the education record of Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

In an article in the Daily Record on 30 May, Dugdale criticised the last ten years of SNP government, and said there had been a significant decline in the number of teachers.

Ferret Fact Service looked at the numbers behind the Scottish Labour leader’s claim, and found it to be True.

Evidence

Statistics on the number of teachers, class sizes and pupil to teacher ratios are collected in the Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland (SSSS).

These figures have been published annually since 2010, and before that as part of the yearly Teachers Census report. Both sets of figures are for those working in publicly-funded schools.

The SNP began governing Scotland in 2007, in a minority administration. The revised statistics for 2007 (published in 2009 to correct data errors) show the total number of teachers was 55,089. This was made up of 52,452 school-based staff, 964 classed as centrally-employed, and 1,672 teaching in pre-school.

The latest statistics published in December 2016 show Scotland’s total number of publicly-funded schoolteachers at 50,970.

The general trend during the SNP’s decade in government has been a reduction in teacher numbers, with over 4,000 fewer staff than in 2007.

There were also significant cuts to teacher training places in Scotland between 2007 and 2010, a decision that the SNP argued was to counteract an oversupply of teachers which left many unable to find work. Recently, education secretary John Swinney admitted the Scottish Government had “probably over-corrected too far”, and places have been increased for the last six years.

In defence of its record in government, the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon have often pointed out that the ratio of pupils to teachers has been maintained as there have been fewer children attending school.

Pupil to student ratios are also collated yearly, and give an indication of the ability of a teacher to give each pupil the appropriate level of attention and assistance. A higher ratio means there are more pupils to each school teacher.

On this measure the picture looks better for the SNP. Ratios have increased slightly since they assumed power, though in both primary and secondary school ratios have flatlined or marginally decreased in the last few years. This could be attributed to a decrease in the number of pupils in education in Scotland.

There are a number of ways in which the Scottish Government’s record can be measured. Some claims that have been made on education have been misleading, but it is clear that Kezia Dugdale’s statement on teacher numbers does add up.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: True

While the SNP have pointed to the ratio of pupils to teachers staying at a similar level, there is no doubt that teacher numbers have significantly declined during the SNP’s time in charge at Holyrood. The Scottish Labour leader’s claim that there are 4,000 fewer teachers in Scotland’s schools than when Nicola Sturgeon’s party came into power is accurate.

This claim is True

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Any questions or want to get involved? Email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our community forum.

In response to an evidence request, Scottish Labour provided FFS with links to the Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland 2016 report.

Photo thanks to Milan Tvrdy, Public Domain

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Kezia Dugdale
Scottish Labour leader


“Under the SNP, teacher numbers have declined by 4,000.”

Contributions

  1. conrad says:

    I suspect that this is exactly the kind of result that reduces people's trust in fact checking, as discussed briefly in response to earlier fact checks. You really need to add a "YES BUT" category: a complaint about a reduction in teacher numbers comes across as completely facile if the teacher-to-pupil ratio has actually improved across the same period.

    While your fact check acknowledges this complexity, distilling your analysis down to a simple "TRUE" is also facile, opens you to being misused by Labour supporters and criticised by SNP supporters.

    Now that I think of it, you could even add "FACILE" as the grade for this kind of "truth". It conveys exactly that sense of acknowledging the claim, but criticising it at the same time for ignoring deeper truths and impoverishing our understanding of the issue at hand.

    It would even offer a nice line in any potential score card for "fact" claimants down the line: in this age of spin, politicians have a real grá for such facile truths.

  2. I agree with Conrad on this. While Ms Dugdale's claim is literally true, it is a single statistic taken out of context. The addition of another single statistic relating to pupil/teacher ratios demonstrates how facile and unconstructive this kind of decontextualised statistical ping-pong is.

    There is a huge amount of data available relating to our schools and these now cover many years, so that trends can be discerned if they are there. However, having been a teacher in schools for 39 years, and with a degree which included mathematics, there are very few statistically significant conclusions which can be drawn. Essentially, the gathering of such statistics is about making improvements, not about blaming.

    In addition, the statistics relate not only to the Scotland level, but also at the local authority, individual school and subject department levels. The variation in outcomes within a school can often be greater than the variation across Scotland on some measures. So, data have to be interpreted carefully, and, if Ms Dugdale or anyone else is sincerely interested in improvements, she/he would be better engaged in engaging in a nuanced discourse, seeking to agree suitable courses of action.

    For example, it has been clear for many years that the divergence in attainments by children becomes evident from fairly soon after birth. Rebalancing the distribution of resources from the upper stages of education to post-natal, preschool and the early years of primary school, would be effective, but the changes would take five years or more to become clear. Politicians and media are not prepared to do that. The Ferret's fact checking would serve us better if it looked at these longer trends.

    If we look at Pupil/Teacher ratios, for example, in schools in the more affluent areas whose pupils tend to gain more and higher graded qualifications than elsewhere, the ratios are generally higher. The myth of the smaller class size as a vehicle for improvement is seen not to be universally true. Smaller class sizes are effective in the earlier years and in areas which have high SIMD scores. In addition, the ratio should not be about just teachers. By providing more classroom assistants, significant improvements can be achieved. Giving Head Teachers the power in their staffing budgets to determine the numbers of teachers and/or classroom assistants to be utilised, provides a very focussed way of dealing with specific issues in her/his specific school.

    Envoy: the much trumpeted 'decline' in outcomes for 'writing' seem to me to be more due to the difficulty teachers are having in interpreting and applying the measurement criteria, than in any significant fall in attainment.

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