It was interesting and revealing to see how the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) figures, showing how pupils in the four countries of the United Kingdom performed in mathematics, reading and science relative to those in other countries, were presented on the BBC.
On the main BBC news, these figures were the top item, and were presented as a failure of education in the UK countries to have progressed since the last time the figures were issued in 2009.
On BBC Scotland, this news item was given much less prominence, and was presented in positive terms along the lines that Scottish pupils had outperformed those in England (just) in two out of the three measures.
This is worrying on two counts – that in a country that prides itself on its education system these figures were not given the prominence they deserve, and secondly that the focus was on a narrow comparison with England, which of course completely misses the point that all the UK countries are performing no better than average and are at present moribund in terms of improvement. What is even more worrying is the future. In England, there is now a move away from the monolithic, one-size-fits-all comprehensive system, with different types of school and different systems of school management.
In Scotland, leaving aside the independent sector, nothing changes in this respect. More importantly, there is a recognition in England that school education is not rigorous enough, and therefore changes to make it more challenging are being introduced, not least in the examination system.
In Scotland, we are moving in the opposite direction with the even less rigorous so-called “Curriculum for Excellence”.
Among other negative changes, pupils will now stagnate for the first three years of secondary school, rather than two as at present.
When is the Scottish Government going to shake off its complacency and wake up to the fact that we have a substantially under-performing school system in Scotland, and that the changes about to be introduced here will exacerbate the problem?
Unfortunately, whether my assertions will be proved correct will take, say, ten years – by which time I fear that Scottish school education will have declined relatively (and probably absolutely) as other countries which recognise the importance of their young people’s education to their skills base and economies forge ahead.
Our school education as we know it has collapsed! At least according to the reports from an international comparative survey.
The assessment of 15-year-old pupils seems to have been the focus, with respect to “maths, reading and science”. What an ill-defined array of “subjects”.
Scotland marginally outperformed the rest of the UK when we were ranked 26th in “maths” and they ranked 27th, a meaningless comparison when all UK pupils came out so badly – China and Korea were streets ahead. Even Vietnam fared better. One commentator reportedly said that our education is good! It has been asserted many times over the years that more than a fifth of UK adults and school-leavers still struggle with literacy and numeracy, a constant moan from prospective employers. This seems to be continuing.
It’s no good arguing that education isn’t just about formal learning – if the knowledge isn’t assimilated then pupils’ confidence and ability to handle employment have to be impaired.
Does our new Curriculum for Excellence address this issue fully, and how is it proposed to narrow the international gap?
The global competition war we are said to be in necessitates our school-leavers achieving ever more in every way, but it all rests on constant improvement of the basics. Scotland’s and the UK’s higher education nonetheless remain world class; there is a contradiction here which needs clarification. The UK’s education provision is still lopsided as the fee-paying school sector largely outperforms state schools, and thus dominates the “top” higher education sector. How is this factored into improving overall achievement?
It can be no surprise to anyone involved in education to hear that our children lag far behind their South-east Asian peers in every conceivable test of literacy and numeracy.
This catastrophe comes despite New Labour throwing money at our unreformed system so that we now spend more per child on school education than almost any other nation.
The real problem is not investment but a culture of low expectations and it is significant that even “Communist” nations embrace the aspiration and elitism we have abandoned.
As a result, South-east Asian graduates will soon overwhelm our white-collar sector in the same way that today Eastern Europeans fill so many of our skilled blue-collar jobs.
(Dr) John Cameron