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Schools fail to challenge pupils- Sunday Times

Mark Macaskill, Sunday Times, 15 November 2009

Only one in eight pupils feels challenged at school in Scotland, compared with one in four in England, according to an international study that adds further weight to claims that educational standards are declining.

The study, by Edinburgh University and the World Health Organisation, also reveals that Scottish teenagers spend more time socialising with friends and playing computer games, rather than studying, compared with their counterparts south of the border.

About 6,000 pupils aged 11-15 were questioned as part of the study, Young People’s Health in Great Britain and Ireland, funded by NHS Health Scotland. The data was collected in 2006.

Across all age groups, only 12% of pupils said they felt pressured to perform well at school, compared with 25% in England and 21% in Ireland and Wales. Girls aged 11 in Scotland were the least motivated, with just 9.1% saying they felt challenged in the classroom. Just over 37% of 15-year-olds in England said they felt under pressure, the highest proportion of any age group in Britain.

Pupils in Scotland had the most active after-school social lives, with almost 47% spending four or more evenings each week out with friends, compared with 32% in England and 42% in Wales and Ireland. Participants were asked how often they played on a computer or games console. In Scotland, 34% of pupils reported playing at least two hours a day, compared with 18% in Ireland, 26% in England and 31% in Wales.

Critics said the figures appeared to support the notion that educational standards are declining in Scotland. A study published this year by John McLaren, of the Centre for Public Policy for Regions, revealed that although Scottish spending per pupil has risen in the past decade, the proportion of those gaining five good grades at the end of compulsory education (S4) has fallen.

Data obtained by the think-tank Reform Scotland showed that pupils in England, who lagged behind Scotland in 1998, are now ahead. In addition, the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study found English pupils are scoring higher than Scots and the gap has widened between 1995 and 2007.

Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said of the latest findings: “It all adds to the body of knowledge and the growing concerns over the standard of Scottish education, which was once very strong but no longer has the pre-eminence it once enjoyed.”

Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, said the study suggested that schools were “dumbing down”. He added: “Unless a school is putting [pupils]under pressure, the chances are it isn’t doing its job.”

Last week, Eric Wilkinson, professor of education at Glasgow University, accused politicians of ignoring fresh thinking and said Scottish education was stuck in a “mud pool”.

He spoke out after proposals in East Lothian to form an education trust — in which a group of schools would take greater control of local spending — were dismissed as out of step with public thinking.

Dr Winfried van der Sluijs, co-author of the report from Edinburgh University’s child and adolescent health research unit, said further research was planned. He added: “We will look at the effects on pupils of socialising with friends after school and their academic performance.”