Scotland slips down world education rankings in key subjects

Deputy First Minister John Swinney at the official opening of Bilston Primary School last month. Picture: PA
Deputy First Minister John Swinney at the official opening of Bilston Primary School last month. Picture: PA
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The Scottish Government was accused of presiding over a “decade of failure” after a global study revealed Scotland has slipped down the ­international rankings in reading, maths and science.

Opposition parties said ministers should be “ashamed” of Scotland’s education record after the nation’s worst ever performance in a prestigious testing system used to evaluate the academic attainment of youngsters across the world.

The research conducted by the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) looked at half a million 15-year-olds in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries.

Published yesterday, the 2015 Pisa research identified a decline in key subjects which the SNP’s opponents described as a “shocking indictment” of the Scottish Government’s treatment of the education portfolio.

In a Holyrood statement, education secretary John Swinney admitted the results were “unacceptable” and vowed to turn round Scotland’s schools.

According to the Pisa results, Scotland was outperformed by 12 countries in science including England, Australia, Estonia, Finland and ­Slovenia.

In maths, Estonia, Finland and ­Slovenia again scored above Scotland, as did Norway, Belgium, the Republic of Ireland and Poland.

There were also 13 countries with higher scores in reading, including Estonia, Poland and Slovenia, as well as Ireland, Finland and Norway.

The results also showed a decline in the levels achieved in Scottish classrooms when compared with performance in previous years.

In the Pisa study of 2012, Scotland had been ranked above the OECD average for reading and science and average for maths. The most recent figures put Scotland at “average” in all three subjects.

Having ranked as the highest in the UK for reading and maths, Scotland now lags behind England and Northern Ireland for both subjects.

The OECD research surveyed about 540,000 students worldwide in 2015 and uses a points system to rank 72 countries against each other, also looking at countries such as Scotland which are part of larger states.

Against its own 2012 ratings, Scotland fell 13 points in reading, seven points in maths and 16 points in science.

For reading, Scotland scored 493 points, seven lower than England and four lower than Northern Ireland.

Scotland was just two points behind both countries for maths, at 491, while in science Scotland slipped further behind England with 497 points compared to 512.

When viewed over a longer period, Scotland’s OECD rank went from sixth in 2000 to 23rd in 2015 in reading. In mathematics Scotland has gone from ninth in 2003 to 24th in 2015 and in science Scotland is now 19th, compared to tenth in 2006.

According to yesterday’s statistics, Wales was the worst-performing UK country across all three subjects, the survey found.

Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: “These shocking statistics are a damning indictment of a decade of failure under the SNP.

“In 2000, Scotland was performing well above the OECD average in all three Pisa measurements but in the intervening years we have slipped progressively backwards.

“The fact that the SNP has been so obsessed with independence has meant that it has taken its eye completely off the ball when it comes to education.

“Nicola Sturgeon says she wants to be judged by her performance on education but parents will rightly wonder what on earth her Scottish Government has been doing for the last ten years.”

Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray said: “SNP ministers should be ashamed of these results. For all their warm words about making education a priority we are seeing performance going backwards as Scotland drops down international league tables.

“These are terrible results after ten years of SNP government. They must wake up to the fact that their year-on-year cuts to school budgets, teachers numbers and support staff are damaging the life chances of Scotland’s children.”

Mr Swinney said he had spoken to his council of international education advisers about results, which he described as “unacceptable”.

In a statement to Holyrood on the Pisa results, he said: “While they show that Scotland’s scores are similar to the OECD average in all three areas tested, they also show that compared to 2012 our performance in reading has fallen.

“In science and maths we are now below the levels at which we performed in 2006 and more countries have outperformed Scotland in all three areas than at any time since Pisa began.

“The results show that closing the poverty-related attainment gap is a complex challenge which is not unique to Scotland.

“The welcome improvements in performance in young people from deprived backgrounds, which we saw in the previous results between 2009 and 2012, have been maintained.

“However, there is still a gap between pupils from the least and the most disadvantaged background, around three years’ worth of schooling, according to the OECD.”

He continued: “We now must be clear: reform is required. This data reinforces the case for radical change that this government is determined to pursue. All of those comments I put on the record to sum up the government’s response to what are statistics and ­performance that is unacceptable.”