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Reform Scotland Update on Educational Attainment

Scottish schools continue to lag behind their English counterparts, according to the most robust data on exam performance. The latest figures – unpublished by the Scottish Government – on exams taken earlier this year show a modest improvement, but confirm a flat overall trend of attainment by pupils at the end of compulsory education.

Meanwhile, spending per pupil has expanded by more than 50 per cent in real terms since 1999, implying a major fall in productivity in the schools sector. On these measures, therefore, billions of pounds have been spent to little effect over the last decade.

At the same time, on the equivalent measure, attainment in England has seen a steady improvement, overtaking Scotland in 2007 and increasing its lead in 2009. This year, the proportion of pupils getting five good grades at the end of compulsory education grew by 1.4 per cent in Scotland, but by 2.1 per cent in England.

This is despite the fact that spending is higher in Scotland than in England. According to the latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) data, spending per capita on education is 12 per cent higher in Scotland than the UK average.

It is clear that the additional money has not been spent to good effect in Scotland. By contrast, reforms undertaken in England to improve diversity and accountability in schools seem to be bearing fruit. At a time of budgetary tightening, Scotland’s political leadership needs to reassess education policy so that performance can improve despite the fiscal circumstances.

Policy makers in Scotland need to look seriously at reforming school education along the lines set out by Reform Scotland in Parent Power in January this year, which draws upon best practice from around Europe and beyond.

The data

The most robust exam measure of school attainment is not published by the Scottish Government, though it is collected by government statisticians at the behest of the Office for National Statistics. It measures the number of pupils who get five good grades, including in Maths and English, by the end of compulsory education in year S4. Pre-appeals figures are published now, with revised figures appearing in the spring.

This measure was established by educationalists as the best test of school performance because it includes all pupils, and includes the key academic subjects of Maths and English, thus eliminating any temptation to inflate performance by encouraging pupils to select ‘easier’ subjects or leave full-time education altogether. It is used by the UK government as the most important measure of school attainment.

The definition of ‘good grades’ is either Standard Grade at 1-3, Intermediate 2 at A-C, or Intermediate 1 at A. These are the equivalents of English GCSE grades A*-C, accepted as such both by the ONS and by universities, colleges and employers across the UK who need to make accurate comparisons of performance between pupils from the UK’s different education jurisdictions.

Thus arguments that English exam data suffers from greater ‘grade inflation’ than Scots, or that this comparison is invalid because it involves two different educational systems are not credible.

Meanwhile, Scottish government data shows that spending per pupil in both primary and secondary schools has more than doubled since 1999, or by more than 50 per cent in real terms.  On these measures, that additional expenditure, billions of pounds over the period has been wasted. The money would have been better spent in other ways, whether within education, on other public services, infrastructure, or by being returned to taxpayers.

Reform Scotland’s recommendations

  • The Scottish government needs to focus much more on output measures for the performance of Scottish schools. Publishing and highlighting the measure of pupils attaining five good grades by S4 including Maths and English would be a good start.
  • It’s clear that Scottish school education suffers from a major productivity problem. This and other measures show little improvement over the last decade despite major increases in spending. This implies a major unnecessary economic burden as well as missed opportunities for our children. The Scottish government should study best practice form abroad and consider reforms such as those laid out in Parent Power.