The latest annual report on school leavers’ attainment and destinations does not make heartening reading. Even the Scottish government’s media operation could not hide the decline compared with last year, but that untypically but only slightly candid news announcement concealed a deeper problem: decline has been quite consistent since about 2014 or 2015. I’ll come back at the end to what happened then.
Consider first what used to be the gold standard – passing three or more Highers. That is still informally the threshold for entry to higher education, and the report shows that 55% of people who reach that level do in fact enter such courses. But the proportion passing 3+ Highers (43%) is now lower than in any year from 2015-16 onwards. (All the dates in this blog refer to the year of leaving school.)
The same is true of other cut-off points for Highers. The proportion with 1+ (61%) and the proportion with 5+ (29%) are almost the same as in 2014-15, and are less than in all the intervening years.
What’s more, the purchasing power of Highers is also dwindling (despite their becoming rarer). The proportion of people who got into higher education having left school only with Highers has been slowly falling – to 55% from 61% in 2010. That is in contrast to people who gained at least one Advanced Higher, 87% of whom entered higher education in 2019, equal to or above the rate in every year from 2010. Since few people get any Advanced Highers, however, the rate of entry to higher education has also been stagnating. It was 40% last year, the lowest since 2015 (when it was 39%).
The same slow decline is found at lower levels of attainment. The proportion achieving five or more National 5s (or equivalent) was 56% last year, lower than in every year from 2013-14.
These numbers conceal differences in particular social groups. The proportion of female students passing 1+ Highers was 67%, 12 points higher than for males. The trajectories over time were similar, however. The entry rate to higher education for women last year was 48%, no increase from 2016-17, but above previous years. For men, the rate was 33%, which was below every year from 2013-14, and had hardly changed in a decade.
The downward trajectory of attainment was also not seen in every local-authority area. In Glasgow, most strikingly, the decline in the proportion passing 1+ Highers started only between 2017-18 and 2018-19 (from 60% to 59%). The same was true of East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire and Inverclyde. But in all but three small council areas, the 2018-19 proportion was lower than the peak of the years from 2014-15 onwards. The exceptions – Clackmannan, East Renfrewshire and Orkney – contain just 4% of school leavers. The preponderance of recent decline suggests that the problems lie in some common national feature that must have been growing in the last few years.
There might appear to be a few more positive messages in the data. One is in the rise of attainment in the most deprived areas, and the resulting rise in progression to higher education. Last year, 26% of school leavers from the most deprived fifth of areas entered higher education, the highest ever, and one-half greater than the 18% in 2009-10.
But there are two caveats. One is that the resulting reduction of the difference between the most and the least deprived areas (from 40 points to 33 points) is partly because of stagnation in the least-deprived areas since 2013-14, at an entry rate of 59%. If the rate had continued to grow in these areas as it had been growing from 2009-10, the gap would have fallen only by about 5 (not 7) points. In other words, just under one third of the closing of the gap has been due to poor progress by the children of the most affluent neighbourhoods.
The other objection to the seemingly good news on inequality is in the well-known flaws of the Scottish government’s favoured measure of deprivation – ranking areas by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. About two thirds of socially disadvantaged people live outside the most deprived fifth of areas, and over a quarter of people in these areas are not deprived. In rural areas, the problem is even worse: recent research commissioned by the Scottish government showed that 90% of people with low incomes live outside the most deprived fifth of areas. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, one fifth of the increase of higher-education entrants from the most deprived areas actually came from families classified as professional or semi-professional, and there was hardly any increase from the opposite group – disadvantaged people living in the least deprived areas. If that trend continued to 2018-19, then about 1.5 points of the 8-point rise in entry from the disadvantaged areas would have been due to advantaged people living there.
So about half of the decrease in the gap (2+1.5 out of 7) is likely to have been due either to non-disadvantaged people living in deprived areas, or to the stagnation of entry from non-deprived areas. The ethical base of policy based on these sleights of hand seems distinctly dubious.
In short, there is little to celebrate in these statistics. Finally, what happened at the point when the decline started? The answer is perhaps too well-known: it was the course and examination changes that followed from Curriculum for Excellence. The curriculum had been put in place in primary and early secondary from about 2010. The schools inspectorate used this as an excuse to reform the courses and assessment at the end of schooling, without offering any rationale. The last year of the former Standard Grade (almost entirely taken in school fourth year) was 2012-13, and the last year of the Intermediate and Higher courses beyond that was in 2014-15. Standard Grade and the Intermediates were replaced by new courses called National 4 and National 5, based on the Curriculum for Excellence. The Higher name was retained, but the syllabuses and assessment were similarly changed to reflect the new curriculum.
So the most plausible explanation for the generally steady decline since the years between about 2014 and about 2016 is this reform. Added to that is the evidence from the recent report on attainment in these new courses, published on 20 February, which not only noted that pass rates in the Higher and National 5 assessments have been falling, but also reported on the main weaknesses in candidates’ performance. For example, many students lacked accuracy in science. In mathematics, too many students’ numeracy was weak and too many struggled with algebra. In social subjects and in English there was a tendency to mistake opinions for facts, to make sweeping generalisations, and to answer exam questions with regurgitated model essays that had been memorised.
None of these essentially anecdotal examples offers a proper explanation of the statistics published on 25 February. But the accumulation of these kinds of evidence suggests a steadily deteriorating grounding in basic knowledge, exactly the kind of failure that might be expected from a curriculum based on skills rather than knowledge. That would explain why the decline has not been a one-off event, when the new courses were introduced, but has continued quite steadily. It’s not the courses and exams as such that provide the explanation, but rather the pedagogical principles which pervade the entire curriculum from age 3 to the senior years of secondary school. The exam performance is merely a symptom of something deeper. This adds further to the growing sense that Curriculum for Excellence is deeply flawed. The problem, however, is that no-one in the inspectorate, the various educational quangos, the core civil service, the government’s council of international experts, the opposition political parties, or the government itself seems willing to admit that anything fundamental is wrong.
Lindsay Paterson is professor of education policy in the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University. He is also a member of the Commission on School Reform