I’m often asked by parents what my views are on the current state of education in Scotland. As you may imagine, I try to be even-handed and fair. However, such analysis of our standards and whether or not they are falling or improving is actually almost impossible to ascertain. Which begs the question, why do we have almost no idea if the education system is doing well compared to its historical past?
Well, I’m beginning to think that it is because the powers that be don’t want us to know.
Here’s a few FACTS which highlight this:
The SQA marks all externally assessed examinations at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher. To ensure the system is fair they pre-determine the percentage of pupils that will pass at particular grades. This is to take into account the vagaries of assessment materials. That is why the pass mark for Higher Maths has been as low as 34%. One year, the Classics Higher exam had a pass rate of well above 50% because had the SQA not done this every student would have ‘passed’. Therefore, you cannot compare SQA results from one year to the next. The stats tell you almost nothing.
The Scottish Government withdrew Scotland’s pupils from two International Studies; namely TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) in 2010. They suggested these comparative studies were too expensive to undertake (around £800 000 every 4 years). However, on closer inspection, Scotland never made the top 10 in any test in any curricular area, whilst England and Wales regularly did. Perhaps the real reason for withdrawal was because it was proving to be embarrassing.
Then, in 2016, the Government withdrew from its own annual study of academic standards – The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. The reason given was that it was no longer required as the Government was introducing new Standardised Tests (to much criticism from educators). The real reason may have been because these tests were showing clear signs that standards were slipping.
Last November, the results from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) were announced. PISA is now the only benchmark we have which shows how we compare to other countries now and to our own country’s past. Scotland’s mean score in Reading in 2018 was 504. This was higher than it was in 2015 (493), similar to 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012 but significantly lower than 2000 (526). Scotland’s mean score in Mathematics in 2018 was 489. This was similar to what it was in 2015 (491), 2012 (498) and 2009 (499) but lower than in 2006 (506) and significantly lower than in 2003 (524). Scotland’s mean score in Science in 2018 was 490. This was similar to what it was in 2015 (497), but considerably lower than in 2012 (513), 2009 (514) and 2006 (515).
So what does all this mean?
The truth (according to PISA) is that our national performance in Reading, Maths and Science (whilst admittedly being above the OECD ‘average’) is considerably weaker than it was in 2000. In other words, what we are actually witnessing is a slow and steady reduction in attainment compared to our own nation’s historical evidence.
Instead of pretending everything is fine, the Government would be well-advised to get their finger out and get it sorted or, at the very least, acknowledge there is indeed a problem.
Happy New Year, by the way…