I WAS delighted to read this month in my local In Your Area alert: “South Ayrshire Council chiefs have expressed their delight at a new report which says a high proportion of school leavers are moving on to ‘positive destinations’.

“The School Leaver Destination Report (SLDR) recorded an impressive 98.6% of pupils across South Ayrshire progressing from school to a positive destination.

“The Scottish Government says school leavers who are engaged in ‘higher education, further education, training, voluntary work, employment or activity agreements’ are classified as having a ‘positive destination’.

“The 98.6% total is the local authority’s highest performance to date- with the national average at 95.7%.”

While as the constituency MSP it was particularly pleasing to hear this news of progress over time and, in comparison with the national average, and despite 9 months of Conservative local government, I am more pleased with the former.

Comparing regions with often widely varying demographic, geographic and economic characteristics, as in national school league tables, is statistically meaningless, unfair and does not promote improvement in the way that comparisons within the same area or school, over time, can.

When we come to exam-based attainment, media attention becomes more intensive, excitable and judgemental. Oppositions politicians become more interested in using the results, in selective and distorting ways, for narrow and partisan purposes.

If we look at SCQF level 7, equivalent to a pass at Advanced Higher, year one at a university or, the often very attractive to employers, HNC, in 2021/22, we see the biggest of the attainment gaps, the one that opposition politicians and media focus on.

In South Ayrshire, schools had 22.6% reaching this level, against the Scottish average of 21.5%. This was an improvement from 2012/13, just five years into the SNP administration, of only 20.4% against the Scottish average of 17.6%. We have there, at SCQF level 7, an improvement, modest but still an improvement, in only one decade. Imagine what any of the opposition parties would have made of that had they been in power. Imagine, had it gone in the other direction, how they would have accused the Education Secretary.

If you cared too much about gaps, as they do, imagine the suggestions that the Scottish average is catching up on Ayrshire schools? Critics, especially opposition politicians on the make and academics keen to impress them, rather than struggle with the more difficult task of impressing their peers with facts like those above, have picked opportunistically at the enormous array of attainment statistics now easily available to all of us.

A popular line, based on selective, misunderstood or dated evidence, is that Scottish schools are less successful than they used to be. Often the Pisa results are wheeled out as evidence of decline. Credible academics, other than those attention seekers mentioned above, are largely contemptuous of this extremely narrow set of data and its use to compare education in culturally and economically distinct societies.

For example, the East Asian systems, in South Korea and Shanghai/China, successful in Pisa, are based on gruelling programmes with 13-hour days and only 5.5 hours sleeping time. Social time is not mentioned at all. Professor Zhao of Oregon University has described them as: “Glorifying educational authoritarianism and romanticising misery.”

In 2014, the New York Times described South Korea’s system as “an assault on children” and suggested that South Korea: “ ... produces ranks of over-achieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire programme amounts to child abuse.”

Pupil suicide rates are high in East Asia and low in the UK.

The successful, in Pisa terms, East Asian systems have also been accused of failing to develop the creativity, originality and innovation industry requires and of leaving “special” children to languish and fail.

In Scotland, there is a different culture and one the SNP in government shares with me and with, I feel sure, most Scots.

A clear piece of evidence lies in the progress toward narrowing the attainment gap at the end of Secondary education.

Critics can be found in much of the media shouting about our supposed failure to sufficiently narrow the gap between the most and the least deprived.

At SCQF level 7, the gap in 2009/10, two years after the SNP first came to power, was 24.1 and by 2021/22 it was still 22.2, though down from 25 in the previous year. If you have limited understanding of statistics or cynically only wish to accuse the SNP Government of failure, these statistics hide the true nature of change.

In 2009/10 only 4.7% of those in the most disadvantaged 20% had achieved at this level but by 2021/22, the figure was 10.3%, more than doubling in only 12 years. Remember also, that 20% means nearly 3000 pupils every year.

Over the same period 28.8% of those in the most advantaged 20% had achieved at this level and by 2021/22, the figure was 38.8%, a smaller in percentage but larger in actual numbers increase.

So, despite the major improvement among those from the most deprived 20%, there had also been a significant improvement among the least deprived 20%. So, the gap had only narrowed slightly, after widening in the previous year, and two successes, one in a priority area for government, the gap widened in 2020/21 and then only narrowed in 2021/22, is then reported as failure.

We could, of course, narrow the gap by simply denying access to Level 7 for many of those in the least disadvantaged 20%. That’s exactly the kind of social engineering they did in Albania for much of the second half of the 20th Century and in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.

The attainment gap is a largely artificial and mostly political idea with no meaning for those it describes. What really matters is the massive improvement in the life chances of those in the most disadvantaged 20%. It’s not enough, of course, but this fact relates to the real experience of thousands rather than that of the media and opposition party opportunism.

There have been similar improvements in attainment for the other three groups between the most and the least disadvantaged. The gaps between them and the least disadvantaged are narrower and, of course, of no interest to the media.

Away from formal examination-based assessment, there has been considerable progress on narrowing attainment gaps in primary schools, at a stage when there is not the pressure to compete for access to high status universities.

In December 2022, we could read in Scottish Government announcements, if not in the media: “The poverty-related attainment gaps in literacy and numeracy levels across primary schools have seen the biggest decreases since records began, official statistics show. The gap between the proportion of primary pupils from the most and least-deprived areas achieving expected levels has narrowed by 3.4 percentage points in literacy and 3.7 percentage points in numeracy, according to the Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels (ACEL) 2021/22. This marks the largest narrowing of the gap in a year since consistent records began in 2016/17. There has also been a record increase in the proportion of primary school pupils achieving the expected levels of literacy (up 3.7 percentage points to 70.5%) and numeracy (up 3.3 percentage points to 77.9%).”

Taken together and based on evidence, we see a very different picture of the achievements of the SNP in Government, in this last decade and more, in assisting schools and learners to achieve all that they can achieve.

In the end, of course, most of the credit goes to the learners and to the schools but just as the opposition parties would want to claim credit had they been in government and, had the trends that matter gone the other way, they would blame us for it. The SNP in government deserves its share.