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26 August 2021updated 27 Aug 2021 9:27am

How the OECD whitewashed the failings of Scotland’s education system

The study lauded by the Scottish government was partial, sycophantic and superficial.

By Chris Deerin

When the long-awaited Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report into Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was published in June it created a rare moment of political unity. The investigation into the effectiveness or otherwise of the policy that has shaped the nation’s school curriculum for more than a decade was generally viewed as rigorous, independent and useful. It was felt that its findings and recommendations, if implemented, would go a long way to fixing the problems at the heart of Scottish education.

Immediately upon its release, Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Scottish education secretary, praised the report’s support for the broad principles of CfE. It was “crystal clear,” she said, that the “Curriculum for Excellence is the right approach for Scotland… it is viewed internationally as an inspiring example of curriculum practice.” There would be a “period of change… to improve, to achieve more and to deliver for Scotland’s pupils”.

[See also: Chris Deerin’s Notebook: Ruth Davidson’s new arrival, Holyrood redux, and rocking out for Rowling]

Steps would be taken to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the much-criticised exams agency, and the school standards body Education Scotland would also be broken up. This was meaty stuff that was well-received by those who have long felt Scotland’s schools system badly needed reform and rethought.

But as the dust settles on the OECD process, doubts about its methods and impact are beginning to emerge. In a biting paper published on 21 August by my think tank Reform Scotland, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, rings the alarm, describing the report as “partial, sycophantic and superficial” and a “seriously missed opportunity” that will have a “baleful legacy”.

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Paterson adds: “It will encourage the belief that Curriculum for Excellence is essentially fine, that the problems can be addressed by minor tinkering with the institutional structures, and that the leadership class of Scottish education know what they’re doing. They don’t, the structures are irrelevant, and the curriculum is an empty shell. So we are stuck with at least five more years of this stasis, till the next parliamentary elections. Another quarter of a million young people will leave school under-educated, under-achieving by proper international standards, and under-prepared for the real challenges of a very uncertain future.”

Paterson finds the OECD report wanting in three main areas: the process by which it gathered its evidence, the manner in which its evidence is presented, and its consideration of the place of knowledge in the curriculum.

Due to the pandemic, the organisation was unable to carry out fieldwork or meet with as many people as it might otherwise have done. It also refused to take written submissions, which particularly angered Keir Bloomer, the chair of Reform Scotland’s Commission on school reform. “A suspicion remains that the pandemic was used by the Scottish government to restrict the OECD team’s access to dissenting opinion,” says Bloomer. In other words, ministers attempted to control the evidence flow and shape the report in ways that it found comfortable. Not quite so rigorous or independent, perhaps.

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Further, the OECD took as its evidence base Scottish government reports “which present opinions as if they were facts about the educational reality”, in relation to the attainment gap between better-off and poorer-off pupils. Damningly, Paterson argues that “selective use of time series, selective quoting of survey results, and tendentious reporting of measures of inequality all constitute bad statistical practice. If this OECD report had been a report of UK Official Statistics, it would have fallen foul of the code of practice of the UK Statistics Authority.”

There had been little attempt by the authors to tackle the core problem of CfE, which is its failure to locate the importance of knowledge at the centre of the curriculum. There was a lack of attention from the OECD on how to improve pupils’ store of knowledge and of developing ways of thinking. Without this, its recommendations amounted to little more than institutional tinkering.

There is a tendency, when supranational organisations such as the OECD turn their focus on national policies and programmes, to treat their findings as gospel, as if they have access to some higher level of expertise and intelligence. The Curriculum for Excellence experience, as exposed by Paterson, is only the latest reminder that they too are flawed, partial and human. To treat them otherwise is ultimately to fail the children who rely on the politicians getting it right.

[See also: Why Scotland is facing an exam grades scandal for the second year running]