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5 December 2023

The SNP can’t explain away Scotland’s schools catastrophe

Under the SNP, pupil performance in maths, science and reading has plummeted.

By Chris Deerin

Perhaps the most notable thing about Scotland’s place in the latest comparison of international education performance is the lack of surprise. We aren’t doing well. In fact, we’re getting worse. We know.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) figures compare the ability of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science. The study has been produced every three years since 2000, and therefore provides a valuable guide to how schooling in key subjects is faring. 

It has been a long time since Scotland has anything to celebrate here. And the latest data shows that this sorry state of affairs continues. In each of the three areas, the nation has declined over the past 15 years.

Although the new figures cover 2022, and therefore take in the lockdown period (when most countries saw some drop in performance), it is telling that in science and mathematics, Scotland declined more than England and is below the international average. Overall, England was the UK’s best performer in all three subjects, with Wales the weakest. Northern Ireland does better than Scotland in maths and science.

In maths and science, Scotland’s performance was poorer than England’s for the highest-achieving 10 per cent of students as well as the lowest-achieving, suggesting that both ends of the academic spectrum are being failed.

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In maths, Scotland scored 471, around the OECD average of 472, but substantially below the overall UK figure of 489. In 2003, the Scottish number was 524.

In science, Scotland scored 483, just below the OECD average of 485, compared to the UK’s 500. In 2005, Scotland was at 515.

Only for reading ability is there any sign of comparatively strong performance. Here, the Scottish figure is 493, on a par with the UK’s 494, and above the OECD average of 476. However, in 2000 Scotland achieved 526. It has hovered around the 500 mark since 2006.

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Overall, then, the story is one of decline. The report’s authors argue that Covid can only be one of the reasons for this. As Lindsay Paterson, Professor Emeritus of Education Policy at the University of Edinburgh, points out, “the changes in Scottish attainment between 2018 and 2022 were more negative than in three quarters of countries in mathematics and science and than two thirds of countries in reading.”

Even more damningly, he says, “if we go back a full decade to 2012… around the time that the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence was beginning to impinge significantly on children’s learning… Scottish attainment has fallen in that time by 27 points in mathematics, 13 points in reading, and 30 points in science.” The OECD believes a 20-point change in any of the three subject areas is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of schooling. “The Scottish decline associated with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence has thus been equal to about 16 months loss of schooling in mathematics, 8 months in reading, and 18 months in science,” says Professor Paterson. 

The OECD team also points to food poverty, a lack of teachers and an increased use of mobile phones in the classroom as some of the challenges facing children in the UK. These have undoubtedly been difficult times for everyone involved in education.

However, the problems with and criticisms of Scotland’s schools system are long established. The SNP has been in government in Edinburgh since 2007, which covers most of the period of decline. It has failed to confront the flaws in the curriculum, to give greater autonomy to headteachers, and to challenge the trade unions that stubbornly block innovation and diversity across the system.

Inevitably, a sense of fatalism has crept in – that it is too hard to reform schooling in ways that will get the best out of young people. But England’s experiments with city academies and free schools – which have in places transformed the prospects of under-privileged pupils – have shown that determination, clear direction and political courage can make a difference. A counsel of despair – or backside covering – is not acceptable in a policy area where Holyrood has had complete control since its establishment in 1999.

One constantly waits for Scottish ministers to acknowledge the depth and range of the problems, but one waits in vain. In response to the new data, Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth blamed Covid’s “profound impact on our young people and their experience of learning and teaching”. She claimed that “wider evidence” including exam pass rates and literacy and numeracy data for primary schools, show “clear evidence of an ongoing recovery.” The headline on the Scottish government’s website is “Scottish education maintains international standing”, which I suppose is one way of putting it.

The support provided to schools and pupils during lockdown by the Scottish government and Education Scotland was risible. The response so far to the OECD report is little better. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results only ever brings one outcome. When will they learn?

[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]

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