The SNP can’t disguise Scotland’s failing education system

New international rankings showing pupils falling further behind in maths and science confirm the desperate need for change.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Amid the zero-sum warfare of a general election campaign, it’s probably a bit much to expect clarity and honesty from politicians. Still, the SNP’s response to the latest international education survey rather takes the breath away.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) findings on Scotland’s performance in reading, maths and science are, according to Holyrood’s education secretary John Swinney, “very encouraging… and the latest sign that our education reforms are working. Scottish schools are improving and this international study confirms that.”

Up to a point. It is true that since 2016 – when the last PISA study, which measures the performance of 600,000 15-year-olds worldwide, was published – Scotland’s performance in reading has improved a little. But it has dropped in mathematics and even more so in science.

In 2016 itself, Scotland’s scores across all three categories declined and, for the first time since the survey began 20 years ago, none of the three was given an “above average” rating.  Swinney said then that his education reforms needed time to bed in and that the results would be better next time.

It is, surely, hard to maintain a claim of success in light of today’s report. It is certainly difficult for any neutral to accept that Scottish education is getting better. And it is disappointing that – the pressures of a general election aside – the SNP is boxing itself into a corner on reforms that plainly need to be reconsidered. 

Even in reading attainment, PISA only shows Scotland getting back to where it was about a decade ago, when the current government was in its infancy. And there has been a rise in reading attainment across the rest of the UK, too, where mathematics has also improved and science has fallen less sharply than in Scotland.

Scotland seems to be struggling to get the best out of its high attainers. The nation does averagely well in reading and maths, but below average in science. Compared to those countries that do best with high-attaining pupils in reading, Scotland lags England, Canada, Finland, the US, Sweden and Poland. In maths it falls well behind England, South Korea, the Netherlands, Japan and Poland. In science, where Scotland performs most badly, there is a similar gap with such countries.

An improvement in reading is to be welcomed, of course, even if it only returns us to the performance of ten years ago and follows years of upheaval in the curriculum. But to be falling further behind in maths and science, in a modern global economy with sectors where these skills are in high demand, hardly bodes well for the future. There also appears to be a poverty of ambition at government level – why is Scotland, once famed for its education system, not aiming to compete with the best rather than preening over a finding that its reading performance is mediocre? Where is the anger at failure in maths and science?

According to Lindsay Paterson, a professor in education policy at the University of Edinburgh, “Scotland’s overall performance is best described as stagnating in mediocrity”. There is also frustration among educationalists that so little useful data on performance is available. The SNP has withdrawn from the two other international comparison surveys and has scrapped a number of domestic measurements. Do we properly understand what is going on in our schools? And if not, why not? What are the politicians afraid of?

Professor Paterson says: “The advent of devolution two decades ago raised hopes that policy-making in Scottish education would become more evidence-based, and that the evidence would be more reliable and relevant. In practice, the evidence base for Scottish education has deteriorated drastically. Scottish education policy is now based on speculation, ideological whim, and partisan rivalry. No worthwhile policy-making is possible in such a context.”

Swinney may profess himself content, but that does not appear to be a widely shared sentiment. He – and Scotland – must do better.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).