Scotland’s education system was once the envy of the world – but that is comprehensively no longer the case, as bleak new figures reveal.
Parents will be rightly horrified to learn of the scale of the decline in key skills outlined in granular detail in the Pisa report – a major global study.
Of course, if you listen to the Scottish Government and to the teaching unions, you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a problem at all.
It’s almost as if these appalling statistics were a figment of our collective imagination – they would have us all believe there simply isn’t an issue.
That goes far beyond wishful thinking, given the extraordinary failures uncovered in this devastating report.
Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth at Holyrood yesterday
The most important conclusion is that Covid isn’t solely responsible for this crisis – although ministers and education chiefs are determined to scapegoat it.
True, the repercussions were far-reaching, but the rot had set in before the pandemic reached our shores – and a large part of the cause was botched curricular reform that had the support of all the political parties in the Scottish parliament.
Doubts are raised about the Covid explanation by Andreas Schleicher, director of the Pisa study, in his analysis of the global data.
Not all countries did show a fall. For example, attainment rose in Japan and South Korea in science, reading and maths, and rose in two of the three in several others – for example, Singapore, Italy and Israel.
Rot had set in before the pandemic
Schleicher makes clear that attainment was declining long before Covid – and that the pandemic merely gave it an extra downward push.
That is certainly true of Scotland, as is well-known, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s much-vaunted crusade to stamp out the postcode lottery in state education – which in reality has proved a dismal failure.
Scottish attainment fell from early in the century to the middle of the first decade, stabilised for a few years, and then, from 2012, started a steady decline which was unmitigated except for a brief rise in reading in 2018 (which was wiped out by the 2022 fall).
As a result, over the whole decade from 2012 to 2022, the Scottish decline was equivalent to about 16 months of schooling in mathematics, eight months in reading and 18 months in science.
That decline started to become noticeable at the moment when the new Curriculum for Excellence began to impact on children’s learning after its implementation from 2010.
One of the main criticisms of the CfE is that it neglects knowledge of the kind that students can obtain only from expert teachers – in effect, it was a kind of dumbing-down.
No long-term change can be achieved without an overhaul of the CfE, but it is only part of the problem – albeit a highly significant one.
There are many other issues, including rising truancy, indiscipline and the distraction caused by mobile phones.
Fascinatingly, more than 20 per cent of pupils agree that phones should be kept out of the classroom – so a large proportion of children are clearly concerned that these omnipresent devices can be harmful to learning.
On a practical level, there are problems with simply banning phones from the classroom – largely because teachers have become used to encouraging pupils to use their phones to search for information.
That problem could be dealt with by giving every pupil a tablet computer so that they no longer need their phones in the classroom.
That’s supposed to be Scottish Government policy – though they have delayed it again because of the cost.
But sometimes spending more money is genuinely the right way to encourage pupils’ independence and initiative. Pisa has played an invaluable role in identifying the problems in Scottish education but the most pressing question it raises is: where does Scotland go from here?
Where does Scotland go from here?
In the polarised world of Scottish politics, it is difficult to see a way forward. The only way ahead is bottom-up – not imposed by the Scottish Government and its clearly failing quangos.
Imposing another reform on teachers would be completely counter-productive. There are schools which are trying to use the flexibility which the CfE offers to do things differently.
They are trying to develop a curriculum based on knowledge, on challenge, on real ambition.
The heads of these schools are under enormous pressure to conform to the national policy.
So one genuinely constructive thing which Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth could do would be to encourage such local experiments.
She should instruct the school inspectors and the local authorities not only to tolerate these but to encourage them actively.
There would have to be proper evaluation of these experiments –which, dismayingly, is also anathema in Scotland.
That would then allow the successful practices to be gradually extended.
It would empower teachers and local communities – and it would provide a way in which parents could help to lead truly innovative schools focusing on high standards.
- Lindsay Paterson is emeritus professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the Commission on School Reform for think tank Reform Scotland