Education is too 'political' in Scotland, OECD report author warns

Education is too “political” in Scotland, the co-author of an OECD report into the education system has warned.

Speaking at the Scottish Parliament’s education committee on Wednesday, the report’s co-author Dr Beatriz Pont warned Scotland needed to “drop the politics” and focus on policy to move forward.

The authors of the report, published in June, also told MSPs the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSA) were “not the most appropriate system monitoring mechanism” for measuring the success of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

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The tests, introduced in 2017, led to pupils experiencing high-stakes tests in primary one, four, seven and in S3 in secondary school. They are opposed by all of Scotland’s teaching unions, as well as by parents groups.

The report looked at Scotland's education system.

The report, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence Into the Future, recommended scrapping the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and reforming Education Scotland.

The exams body is to be broken up and replaced, with pupils, parents and teachers to be consulted on changes, while responsibility for school inspections will be split off to a new independent system.

Dr Pont said: “We're providing recommendations to have to consolidate the structures to make your CfE less political and more policy oriented.

“We find that at present, the politics overtakes the policy, and that's why we think it's important to have the right institutional structure, so that CfE is professionally reviewed in an institution that has the experts to do so and consult externally with all the different stakeholders to do that.”

She added: “You have the will. Education is one of the top priorities in public policy, so we welcome that. If that's such a priority, you will make it happen and drop the politics behind moving forward.”

The stance came as two MSPs clashed over the lack of involvement of prominent CfE critic Professor Lindsay Paterson, of Edinburgh University, in a major review into the policy.

Dr Pont said: “Lindsay Paterson was among our shortlist, but it was not possible to fit him, so we read his publication as well.”

She went on to say it was important for the body to ensure that it didn’t become “overloaded”, adding: “I think we covered a good number of academic perspectives, whether we met them or read their materials initially or during the review.”

The assertion enraged Tory MSP Oliver Mundell, who said: “Quite frankly I find it shocking that the OECD didn’t find the time to speak to Prof Paterson. I think he’s widely regarded in Scotland, by Scottish teachers, by parents, by many across academia.

“The idea that, as one of the leading critics of the current curriculum, his voice would not be included and his papers would only be read, I think confirms many of the concerns I’ve got.”

SNP MSP James Dornan came to the defence of the OECD review, saying: “I found the last intervention highly embarrassing for the committee.

“The OECD is an internationally respected organisation. Oliver seems to have this conspiracy theory that the Scottish Government have got power over all sorts of international bodies and that if they don’t do exactly as he wants, then there is some conspiracy is going on.”

Dr Pont said the report had been reviewed following comments from the Scottish Government and other stakeholders.

She said the organisation had sent an initial draft to the Scottish Government, as well as other parties, including other parts of the OECD, who were asked for feedback, before creating a final draft that was published publicly earlier this year.

Dr Pont said: “The process for us is always the same with countries. It's quite an intricate process to develop these reports.”

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Dr Pont said that comments were sought from staff at the OECD from its Education 2030 team, as well as from the Scottish Government “and other observers”.

She said: “And then we ourselves as a team, review their report and have a prepare a final draft. And that's how any academic would work. A first draft is never a final draft.”

Dr Pont described the assessment system in Scotland as “very confusing”, saying she needed local input.

The report also warned there was a “misalignment between CfE’s aspirations and the qualification system” in the senior phase of secondary education in Scotland which it said was an “obstacle” in the full roll-out of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

A separate report out this week from the Commission for School Reform, which looked at the OECD report, called on the government to “radically simplify” the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence.

Romane Viennet of the OECD told MSPs the SNSA tests were not “relevant” for the CfE.

She said: “We're almost suggesting that what CFE would need would be some sort of study that would have a focus on student experiences of curriculum and assessment, their experience and their suggestions about the qualifications linked to those assessments, something that would look at the diversity of what Curriculum for Excellence is trying to achieve, rather than what is correct, measured via the SMSC.”

Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer said: “The OECD is clear that these tests have limited value and aren’t collecting the data needed at national level, whilst teachers have made it equally clear that they are not helpful at an individual school or pupil level either. If SNSAs are fulfilling neither of these purposes, we have to ask what value they are adding to Scottish education?

“High-stakes testing can have a negative impact on learners and force teachers to ‘teach to the test’, which goes against the very principles of the Curriculum for Excellence and the aim of providing a broad education. In accepting the recommendations from the OECD in full, we need to make sure the curriculum is measured effectively.”

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