Pisa rankings: Huge decline in Scotland’s performance in world education rankings

Nation’s above-average falls in OECD scores for maths, science and reading branded ‘dismaying’

The performance of Scottish pupils has plummeted in maths, science and reading in new Pisa world rankings.

Results from tests taken last year by a sample of 15-year-olds have been branded “dismaying” after they showed an ongoing decline in standards.

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Since the last Pisa assessments in 2018, the nation’s youngsters have dropped 18 points in maths, 11 points in reading and seven points in science.

Students during a class. Ben Birchall/PA WireStudents during a class. Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Students during a class. Ben Birchall/PA Wire

The results for Scotland in maths and science are below the OECD average for the first time, albeit only slightly.

Experts predicted a downturn in many countries as a result of disruption caused during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the fall in Scotland’s scores has been sharper than in England and the UK as a whole, despite similar lockdown rules.

The drops north of the border were also larger than the OECD average in maths, science and reading.

Once the best-performing nation in the UK, Scotland now lags behind England by 21 points in maths, by 20 points in science, and by three points in reading.

Writing for The Scotsman today, Edinburgh University emeritus professor Lindsay Paterson says the drop in Scotland’s performance since 2012 in maths was equivalent to the loss of about 16 months of schooling, while in science it was 18 months, and in reading it was eight months.

He highlights that the Scottish figures are “particularly poor” for the highest-attaining pupils, with inequality gaps “getting worse”.

Prof Paterson says the reasons for the decline are complex, but an “inescapable culprit” is Curriculum for Excellence, introduced since 2010.

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He writes: “We can now see that this badly thought-out reform has been accompanied throughout by a slide in attainment.

"The warning has been sounded many times before. What will it take for Scottish policy makers to do something about it?”

The data published on Tuesday shows the results of nearly 700,000 students, from 81 countries, who took the programme for international student assessment (Pisa) test, which is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Established in 2000, it is the most influential measurement of its kind, with tests carried out every three years, although the 2021 edition was postponed until last year due to the pandemic.

The 2022 assessments were focussed on mathematics, and found 31 countries had managed to at least maintain their performance in maths since 2018, including Australia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Switzerland.

However, there was generally an “unprecedented drop” in scores, with mean performance falling by 10 points in reading and by almost 15 points in maths.

Scotland’s fell slightly further, by 11 points in reading and by 18 in maths. England dropped by nine points in reading and by 12 in maths. Wales had the lowest scores of the four nations in all three categories.

Highlighting recent trends in maths scores, OECD education director Andreas Schleicher said: “I think the last years have not been so great in Scotland.”

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The OECD said the overall falls could only partially be put down to Covid, with many countries having already been on a downward trend, and “no clear difference” found between education systems with limited school closures and those with longer lockdowns.

Other factors were said to have included the use of smart phones “for leisure” in schools, a downturn in parental engagement and low levels of teacher support.

Mr Schleicher said: “You can never disentangle what is the influence of Covid versus those other factors. Probably I would be cautious to attribute too much to the pandemic.

"I think many of the trends that we see here rather point to underlying structural features. If it was Covid alone you would have seen a much clearer relationship between school closures and outcomes.”

While Scotland used to be comfortably above the OECD average, it is now below it by two points in science and by one point in maths, although the nation remains 17 points higher than the average in reading.

The UK has a whole was 17 points higher than average in maths, 15 points above in science, and 18 points higher than the wider OECD figure for reading.

In reading, Scotland and England performed similarly for both the best 10 per cent and the weakest 10 per cent of students, but Scottish results were lower than England in maths and science for both groups.

According to the survey results, Scottish social inequality is greater than in England for mathematics and for reading, and the same as in England for science.

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In maths, social inequality in Scottish attainment has widened since 2012, whereas there has been no change in England.

Meanwhile, amid rising concerns about school violence in Scotland, the Pisa study found the proportion saying they had heard a student threaten to hurt another student in school in the previous four weeks was at 36 per cent in Scotland, 37 per cent in England, 43 per cent in Wales, and 28 per cent in Northern Ireland.

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth said: “As is well understood, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on our young people and their experience of learning and teaching.

"Pisa demonstrates this impact across the majority of countries participating. Whilst every country in the UK has seen a reduction in its Pisa scores across maths and reading between 2018 and 2022, there will be key learning for the Scottish Government and Cosla to address jointly in responding.”

She added that since Pisa was conducted, wider evidence from the 2023 national qualification results and the most recent literacy and numeracy data for primary, show “clear evidence of an ongoing recovery which we are determined to build on”.

Ms Gilruth is due to address the Pisa figures in the Scottish Parliament next week.

Overall, despite lower results, the UK climbed the rankings in maths to joint-12th, alongside Belgium, Denmark and Poland, up from joint 17th in 2018.

In reading, the UK has also risen to 13th, up from joint-14th in 2018, while in science, the UK was ranked joint-14th, the same as 2018. Singapore was the top performer in all three categories.



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