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Highland Council education bosses blame poor attainment on primary school teachers

By Scott Maclennan

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Asking teachers “to mark more generously” would be artificially lowering standards, say critics.
Asking teachers “to mark more generously” would be artificially lowering standards, say critics.

Highland Council education bosses have blamed poor attainment on primary school teachers. It comes in a report to be considered at its education committee on Wednesday.

In it, the council's highest ranked education official Nicky Grant along with performance and improvement manager Beth Brown claim teachers “are still cautious when determining whether a pupil has achieved a level”.

Education insiders branded that “despicable” and a severe blow to already low staff morale. They argue the problem is an absence of standardised guidance to assess pupils for the curriculum for excellence.

The local authority remains under pressure over educational standards after landing at the bottom of Scotland’s rankings but this is the first time it has explicitly said teachers are dragging down the numbers.

Nicky Grant.
Nicky Grant.

Ms Grant and Ms Brown claimed that alleged low-marking by primary teachers is dragging attainment stats down and data indicates a need to “improve accuracy of teacher judgement”.

They stated: “Our data, although improving year-on-year, indicates our primary stage teachers are still cautious when determining whether a pupil has achieved a level.

“This data shows Highland teacher judgements at primary level do not reflect the learning and attainment picture that allows children to accelerate their progress into and through secondary school where attainment is at a benchmarked standard.

“Therefore, the true attainment picture is likely much higher than the data suggests.”

That is based on a 2023 Primary 7 cohort detailing the percentage of pupils falling into the middle and upper bandings according to the Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence.

Ms Grant and Ms Brown stated “the data indicates teacher judgements are considerably lower than the standardised attainment overview,” so attainment “may be higher than the teacher judgements suggest”.

Those claims were met with scepticism by critics and education insiders who said the report will have a terrible impact on teacher morale as it appears bosses are letting themselves off the hook at the expense of staff.

One education source privy to the council’s approach on education told The Inverness Courier that the problem is not the standards “and certainly not with the primary teachers” but the assessment criteria in the Highlands.

According to them, there is a lack of standardised guidelines for marking which leaves schools and sometimes individual teachers having to establish their own marking standards without the council providing the necessary support.

They also revealed that council officers have been touting the idea that children “did not even have to recall the learned information in order to achieve a level” as long as there was evidence that some of the benchmarks had been taught.

Councillor Helen Crawford.
Councillor Helen Crawford.

Aird and Loch Ness councillor Helen Crawford said that by asking teachers “to mark more generously” is artificially lowering standards which ultimately serves no one except the statisticians at Highland Council.

Last month she called on the local authority to declare a 'school estate emergency' due to the condition of its education buildings – a move that was rejected.

“A lot of parents will be disappointed to hear that the response to low attainment is, yet again, to ask our teachers to mark more generously,” she said. “That’s not a solution to failing standards in our schools; that’s just a big sticking plaster.

“I understand that the moderation uplift exercise was done by Highland Council last year. It’s fair enough to have one bite of that cherry, but doing it year-on-year is not on.

“The reality is that we have teachers across Highland who are under immense pressure, and they need more support.

“Is it time to stand up and accept that the curriculum for excellence at primary school level is not working, no matter how hard our teachers try?

“Maybe it could work if we gave our teachers and the ASN (additional support needs) teachers the support they need but the reality is that many of our teachers just don’t get that support.

“And in Highland, given our rurality, many of our teachers have composite classes, with pupils presenting a range of diverse needs. That’s a massive challenge unless the teacher has the ASN support he or she needs.

“Add to this the almost daily incidents of abusive and unacceptable behaviour, and we begin to see the real picture. This is about major step changes, not sticking plasters.”

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