YESTERDAY, the latest (and last) Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) data was published by the Scottish Government and, once again, the news is not good.

On the positive side of things, reading levels appear to have remained roughly stable over the past two years, as have pupils’ listening and talking skills (although the accurate assessment of the latter is extremely problematic).

The real headline data, then, comes from the writing section of the survey.

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Of obvious concern here is the fact that 16 per cent of S2 pupils are apparently not working within the appropriate curricular level for writing, an increase of 4 percentage points since 2014. That is certainly a shocking and unacceptable situation but, as always with education statistics, caution is warranted.

It is important to note that the S2 data is in fact referenced against S3 benchmarks, meaning that children are, for the purposes of a genuine comparison across different stages, being assessed a year early. John Swinney is right to point out that by the end of S3 this figure will undoubtedly have improved.

It is also the case that the writing assessment specifically focuses on cross-curricular literacy work in a way that other aspects of the SSLN do not, with pupils’ work in classes other than English being graded.

The SSLN report itself makes clear that this is a particularly challenging area and it means the bar is in some ways higher for the writing section of the SSLN than it is for others.

But that’s not to say that there is no cause for concern. While writing performance at P4 level has remained stable, the official report clearly states that “performance of P7 and S2 pupils declined by seven and 15 percentage points respectively, between 2012 and 2016.” Though some of this shift can probably be explained by assessment judgements bedding in over time, as well as issues around the methodology, there is no question that the overall trend in Scottish literacy is negative.

Both John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon will come under pressure as a result of this data – as they should. There are few who seriously contest the notion that SNP education (and arguably taxation) policy has, at best, exacerbated the problems faced by schools. It is also important, however, to look at this issue within its proper social context of austerity economics and the resulting rise in poverty.

More than a quarter of children in this country now live in relative poverty. In the last year the Trussel Trust has reported a 9 per cent increase in the use of its food banks across Scotland, with nearly 50,000 children now being helped by this charity alone. Factors like inflation, welfare cuts and precarious, poorly paid employment affect children at least as much as their parents, and any teacher will be able to explain the impact of such factors on a pupil’s performance in school.

There are cultural factors to be highlighted as well. Buried near the bottom of the SSLN report is one particularly heart-breaking statistic: 26 per cent of P4 children hardly ever, or never, have someone at home who reads with them. That needs to change, and fast.

Unfortunately (though unsurprisingly) Swinney has already attempted to spin the SSLN data as evidence that his government’s reforms – most notably the imposition of national standardised testing and changes to school governance – must be followed through. He is wrong.

Blowing millions of pounds on pointless tests, as well as a distracting and unwanted reorganisation of Scottish education, will do nothing to improve literacy and numeracy rates, nor will it put a dent in the atrocious levels of educational inequality that blight our society.

The urge for the Government to be seen to be doing something is understandable but it would surely make more sense to focus on things that might actually work: replacing the thousands of teachers and support staff lost over the last 10 years; reducing teachers’ class contact time, and the level of bureaucracy they face, to allow them to do their jobs properly; and working to ensure that every child in the country has access not just to a school library, but to a librarian.

These are the sorts of reforms that, alongside tackling the poverty at the root of our problems, could really make a difference.