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Open eyes to differences in attainment- The Scotsman

Ben Thomson, Letter to Editor, The Scotsman, 10 November 2009

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If we are serious about improving the performance of our education system in Scotland, we should not shy away from comparisons with other countries, even if we don\’t like the results (your report, 9 November). On the contrary, we should be putting more effort into comparison because we owe it to parents, pupils and taxpayers to find out how we are doing. The response from the main teaching unions to Reform Scotland\’s research on educational attainment was, therefore, disappointing.

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Yes, the English and Scottish exam systems are different and no comparison can be entirely accurate. But this equivalence is the best we\’ve got. It is based on official figures collected by the Scottish Government at the request of the Office for National Statistics and measures the number of pupils getting five good grades, including in English and maths, by the end of compulsory education. It is based on millions of pieces of data and is used by universities, employers and others so that pupils from Scotland can be assessed against their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.
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\r\nIf there are problems of comparison in the UK, these are nothing to the problems in international studies. Yet these studies tell a similar story. The Pisa series shows a decline in the results of Scottish pupils, while the Pirls literacy study and Timss survey of maths and science are even worse.
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\r\nThere is no room for complacency, which is why we have called for fundamental reform. The point of education is to educate pupils, and if the extra money that has gone into the system is not improving results, we need to ask why.
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\r\nIt is not good enough for representatives of teaching unions to try to cloud the issue by making inaccurate comments suggesting that Reform Scotland has some hidden party political agenda. We are a non-partisan think-tank which puts forward research and ideas to stimulate debate. Our advisory board and trustees include people with a range of political backgrounds and we do not support any political party. To emphasise this, we set up a political engagement forum which includes members of the four main political parties in Scotland.
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\r\nReform Scotland is not the only organisation highlighting these issues. For example, John McLaren of the Centre for Public Policy for Regions recently highlighted Scotland\’s poor performance compared to England and the lack of progress since devolution.
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\r\nWe need a more open debate about the challenges facing our education system, and if Scotland\’s teaching unions genuinely have the interests of pupils and parents at heart, they should be concentrating on identifying those challenges – not obscuring them.

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