What state is the Scottish education system in?

by Stacey Dingwall

On Tuesday, the Scottish Government published new statistics on the country’s education system, contained in the evidence report for the National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education. The report outlines progress made against each of the four priorities set by the Scottish Government in January when it first published the Framework:

  • Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy;
  • Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children;
  • Improvement in children and young people’s health and wellbeing;
  • Improvement in employability skills and sustained, positive school leaver destinations for all young people.

The government’s priority

The Scottish Government has previously identified education as its top priority, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stating that her actions in this area are what she wishes to be judged on during her time in office.

Unfortunately, these latest statistics did not bring good news for the First Minister. While Education Secretary John Swinney highlighted that the number of teachers in the country had increased overall, he also conceded that “significant improvements” were needed in some areas. These areas include a worsening of the ratio of pupils to teachers in 12 council areas, and a slight increase in class sizes overall.

2015 Pisa results

The progress report came on the heels of the previous week’s bad news: Scotland’s performance in the 2015 Pisa rankings. The country recorded its worst ever results in the OECD survey, with scores for maths, science and reading declining since 2012. Scotland’s 2015 results in these areas were all classified as ‘average’, in contrast to 2000’s results of ‘above average’.

Although Scotland maintained its position within the OECD statistical average, the results indicate that the country is now performing ‘significantly below’ other countries in some areas, including England (science).

Has the Scottish education system got worse?

Reacting to the Pisa results, opposition parties called them evidence of “a decade of educational failure” under the SNP. Keir Bloomer of Reform Scotland and the Commission on School Reform also said that it was “no longer credible to describe Scotland’s education system as world leading”, and suggested there was now an “urgent” case for reform.

This is not something that the Scottish Government has shied away from admitting. As we reported from this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, John Swinney has made it his intention to “declutter’ the Scottish education system, by reducing teachers’ workloads around assessments. A number of actions have either been implemented, or are in the process of being introduced, in response to the OECD’s 2015 review of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland, which the government commissioned itself. These include the expansion of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, funding from which enabled 63% of the increase in FTE teachers in Scotland last year.

Pisa overemphasis?

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, said that it was important not to make any “snap judgements” based on the Pisa results, emphasising the need for analysis of the full data released by the OECD rather than headline findings.

We looked at issues raised around the influence of Pisa results in 2014, when academics and research questioned the system’s reliability and its claim that when schools are given more independence over spending, their schools achieve better academic results. An evaluation of the Pisa methodology published in May this year found that it had a series of limitations including “an inconsistent rationale, opaque sampling, unstable evaluative design, measuring instruments of questionable validity, opportunistic use of scores transformed by standardization, reverential confidence in statistical significance, an absence of substantively significant statistics centered on the magnitudes of effects, a problematic presentation of findings and questionable implications drawn from the findings for educational norms and practice”.

The OECD itself has admitted that “large variation in single country ranking positions is likely” because of the methods it uses.

Going forward

Conceding that the results were not where she wanted Scotland’s education system to be, Nicola Sturgeon maintained, however that the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is the “right way forward”. She also highlighted her government’s commitment to acting on the recommendations contained in the OECD’s earlier review of the system, in which the CfE was described in positive terms, with the caveat that the government must be ‘bold and innovative’ in order to achieve its potential. Given the First Minister’s stated determination to improve the education system’s performance, this is advice that would seem logical to follow.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

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