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Appalling truth is that Scottish education is no longer world class

This article by Keir Bloomer appeared in the Daily Mail on 7 December 2016.

Scotland has long prided itself on educational superiority and in past generations this may have been a claim with genuine foundation. But yesterday’s PISA survey, which compares the performance of school systems across the globe, has dealt a lethal blow to any lingering hopes that this old boast retains any validity.

In the first survey in 2000, Scotland was judged to be well above average in all of the subject areas tested: reading, maths and science.

The results published yesterday show that, in 2015, Scotland’s performance was at best average in each subject.

It is simply no longer possible to maintain that Scotland has a world leading education system.

The best that can be claimed is mediocrity among the systems of the developed world.

What is certain is that other countries are moving ahead much faster than Scotland.

Looking only at the last three years, the number of countries doing significantly better than Scotland has increased from seven to 13 in the case of reading, from ten to 14 in maths and from nine to 12 in science.

The implications of this are enormous: in a developed country such as Scotland, economic success is hugely dependent on the quality of the education system.

Without a workforce containing a high and growing proportion of people capable of working creatively at a high level of skill, the future will look very bleak.

It is important also to consider the possibility that standards are actually falling, and not just relative to other countries’ performance.

The Scottish Government conducts an annual survey of levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy at two stages in primary school and also in second year at secondary.

These have shown a steady deterioration in standards in each year the survey has been run. The surveys are relatively small-scale (although statistically significant) but, taken together with the PISA scores, they may point to very serious cause for concern.

In PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the trend is all too clear.

A complex scoring system was used to allot points reflecting pupils’ performance and allowing comparisons to be made. Points allotted under the PISA ranking system for reading skills in Scotland have declined from 526 in 2000 to 493 in 2015; from 533 in 2000 to 491 for maths and from 522 to 497 in science.

England scored higher in each category in 2015 – 500 for reading, 493 for maths and 512 for science.

It is clear that there has been a significant decline in Scotland’s performance in all subject areas. The deterioration over the last three years is the steepest of all.

In each subject area, there are at least a dozen countries performing significantly better than Scotland and a large number of other countries with slightly higher scores.

Eight countries now perform better than Scotland on all measures; Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands and Slovenia. It is worth noting this list includes two countries – Estonia and Slovenia – that only emerged from the Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia respectively around 1990. At that time their standards were very low.

In the interim, they have improved at a rate that Scotland can only envy.

The list also includes Far East countries that rely on long school hours, intensive tutoring and rote learning as well as countries that use much more liberal approaches, more similar to Scotland’s.

It seems that what counts is not so much the methods a country chooses as how successfully it implements them.

This point is crucial. It is, of course, possible that Scotland has been pursuing the wrong policies but it is far more likely that it has been doing broadly the right things but insufficiently effectively.

Scotland has never been short of good educational ideas. However, it has been notably unsuccessful at turning them into effective action. Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is a case in point.

When the original policy statement was published in 2004 – fully 12 years ago – it was almost universally welcomed by teachers, parents and others. The CfE is still seen by the OECD as, in principle, a good example of the kind of curriculum that can lead to success in our globalised world.

However, in the report that organisation published on Scottish education a year ago, there was criticism of aspects of the implementation and a recommendation that the curriculum should be relaunched in accordance with the original principles, but with the official guidance simplified and clarified. The Scottish Government committed itself to take this action.

The call for simplification was long overdue. By last year, more than 20,000 pages of guidance to teachers had been allowed to accumulate. Workload burdens had grown to the point where they threatened the whole programme.

It is self-evident that guidance on this scale is self-defeating. No teacher can be expected to assimilate it. Inevitably, the essential is mixed in with the trivial and the irrelevant. There is simply no prioritisation. Unfortunately, the steps taken so far to achieve simplification have been misconceived and may be self-defeating.

Excessive complexity is not the only problem. Guidance issued concerning the number of subjects that a young person can study in fourth year has led directly to a narrowing of the curriculum, a loss of opportunity and a drastic drop in the uptake of a number of subjects, notably modern languages.

A letter issued this summer by Education Scotland has gone some way to repairing this damage, but many schools remain confused and several local authorities continue to issue inappropriate instructions to them.

In short, the impact of CfE – as implemented, not as conceived – has been, in this case, actively damaging.

A fundamental problem is that Scottish education simply lacks effective mechanisms for bringing about change.

There are signs, however, that the Scottish Government appreciates this problem. It is currently conducting a consultation designed to empower teachers and parents, ensuring many more of the important decisions that affect schools are taken at school level. This is the correct strategy.

It is to be hoped the Government will have the determination and courage to see that it is taken forward in a radical and thoroughgoing manner.

This will entail standing up to the vested interests that have been allowed to accumulate excessive power and influence in Scottish education.

Governance reform is important, but it is not sufficient. The failures of CfE implementation and the decline in Scotland’s global standing, which is partly a consequence of them, demonstrate that the institutions of the system are ineffective.

Schools have great problems in obtaining support that is practical and geared to tackling the problems they are actually experiencing.

The main national agency, Education Scotland, has a fundamental conflict of interest built into its structure. It is called on to inspect and evaluate policies and practices it has itself largely developed. This has to be remedied.

Scottish education has significant strengths, but it is time to recognise that it also has profound weaknesses. These do not lie in the classroom: they lie in the way that the system is run.

Change processes are shambolic; governance is outdated and ineffective; over-riding priorities are clear and appropriate, but guidance for teachers is not.

The Government must now take urgent action to tackle these shortcomings.