Tom Miers: Educators at bottom of class
SCOTTISH education is costing more and more for less and less success, to resounding silence from those who should care most.
Imagine a business where investment rises by 50 per cent but output stays the same. With each passing year global competitiveness slips further. A nearby rival firm is pulling ahead with a product that costs 10 per cent less. The manager gets the sack, right? Or at least apologises to shareholders and customers? And promises to find out what’s going wrong and to fix it? Not if the business concerned is Scotland’s state education system.
Last week the Commission on School Reform published its interim report on Scottish education. The CSR was set up by two think-tanks, Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, to assess the quality of Scottish schools and suggest ways of improving them.
Chaired by the respected educationalist Keir Bloomer, the commission certainly pulled its punches, issuing a polite press release claiming that we had one of the world’s “higher- achieving systems”, although its position has been “slipping” in recent years.
Yet, read the report closely and the evidence it draws upon is damning. Scotland has taken part in three major international surveys of pupil performance in recent years. In two of these, Timms (which measured Maths and Science aptitude) and Pirls (literacy) Scotland did badly compared to other developed countries.
I say “did”, because the Scottish Government has withdrawn from these studies. The only survey recognised by the Scottish Government as a comparison with other systems is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study, which measures pupil aptitude every three years. No surprise, it’s the only one Scotland does quite well in although, as the CSR said, performance has been “slipping” of late.
Pisa is a useful study, but reliance on one piece of evidence is asking for self-deception. As the CSR report pointed out, the Scottish Government is already adjusting the school curriculum to match the methodology used in Pisa. Like all tests, it is suited to a certain kind of student, and can be manipulated.
Pisa measures the life skills of children (including those from private schools), rather than their schooling, so it’s actually not so much a judgment on state education as on preparedness for a certain interpretation of modern life. This brings its own problems. It’s very noticeable, for example, that all the English-speaking countries in the survey do well. Given what we know about the productivity of the younger members of our workforce, are we really to believe that our children are better prepared in every respect than those of France, for example?
The most comprehensive evidence of pupil performance is exam results. But the Scottish Government refuses to compare results here with other jurisdictions in the UK, despite a widely accepted scale of equivalence between the different exam systems that is used by universities and employers to assess applicants.
Fortunately, its statisticians do collect the data, and from this we can see that English pupils have now overtaken Scots ones, despite schools south of the Border receiving 10 per cent less funding. Again, as with the surveys, Scots performance has flat-lined, despite a 50 per cent increase in spending since devolution.
Not only do Scottish ministers assert that the two exams systems not comparable, but that in England “grade inflation” – the dumbing down of exam standards – means that improvement there is illusory. It is disappointing to see this claim repeated in the CSR report, despite the fact that no attempt has been made in Scotland to measure grade inflation. Our exams could be dumbed down more, less, or about the same as those in England, we just don’t know.
The insouciance with which this issue is treated is shocking. If there really is “grade inflation” in England, but not in Scotland, then this puts our pupils at a major disadvantage because English grades are being valued artificially highly. We should be busting a gut to get to the bottom of this issue, not burying the figures.
What is clear from exam results, as from other surveys of literacy and numeracy, is that educational performance is fundamentally linked to a child’s social and economic background.
The gold standard used by many educationalists is the proportion of students who get five decent grades (Standard Grade 1-3 or equivalent) at the end of compulsory education including the crucial subjects of English and maths. Again, this data is reluctantly collected but not published by the Scottish Government. It shows a great variation in outcomes. In East Dunbartonshire, 70 per cent of pupils get the five grades, but in Glasgow, shockingly, just 40 per cent do.
In other words, state education in Scotland may be comprehensive, but it is far from equal. Indeed, it seems to have almost no effect in curing the ills of social deprivation despite the uniform approach to provision. If your parents are poor, the chances are you’ll stay poor because your school won’t educate you properly.
Nowhere is the lack of focus on results more evident than when it comes to money. Education is the Scottish Government’s second biggest area of expenditure. We now spend nearly £8 billion annually on education. This figure has increased from about £5.3bn in 2003. But as the evidence shows, all that extra money has had no effect on performance. What’s happened to it all? Most of it appears to have been spent on increased salaries for teachers and new buildings for schools. But in most other walks of life you don’t spend more money unless you expect to get something for it. Education isn’t about buildings, it’s about teaching children.
So that’s £2.5bn a year being wasted, largely. The opportunity cost of this is immense. The figure is more than enough to scrap council tax altogether, for example, bringing untold relief to hundreds of thousands of families and creating jobs, growth and prosperity up and down the land. But no, nobody is held to account, no-one seems to care where the money has gone and whether it was wisely spent.
Commenting on his report, Keir Bloomer said that “we should not delude ourselves about our position or allow ourselves to be complacent”. And yet complacency, on a massive scale, is what infects the educational establishment and the body politic in Scotland.
What is particularly disappointing is the cross-party omerta on the subject. When the SNP, supposedly a revolutionary movement, finally came to power in 2007, after 80 years in the political wilderness, you would have expected some sort of change, some sort of new thinking. And yet immediately on taking office SNP ministers started parroting the same excuses, wasting the same money, hiding the same evidence that their predecessors had done.
Part of the problem is that, in education, the state has a captive customer. Few Scots have the means or opportunity to try schooling elsewhere and so few are aware of what else can be done.
But we should not let the state use this power it has over us to stifle debate. Whatever you think of the education system in England, at least there is a real, heated argument about it. In Scotland, by contrast, we suppress evidence instead of trying to analyse it and castigate critics for “doing Scotland down”. It’s all too cosy, too complacent and too small.
If there’s no room for debate, there’s no room for change, and we’ll fall ever further behind while the world passes us by.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east