Analysis: Scotland may not lay great weight on Pisa assessments, but picture they paint is still worrying

Most Scots associate Pisa with dodgy Italian architecture. But in many countries the acronym for the Programme for International Student Assessment is very familiar. Some countries, such as Korea and Japan, who come close to the top of the world rankings, see it as a matter of national pride that they do well in Pisa assessments.

In Scotland, the results from this OECD-sponsored analysis of maths, reading and science skills at age 15 are given much less prominence, even though they provide us with one of the few opportunities to look at the report card for Scottish education as a whole.

The 2009 results seem more like a barely acceptable pass than a strong performance. Scotland's pupils are still above the OECD average, but the general trend in the last decade has been downwards.

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This may not music to the ears of the educational establishment. But if you get a report card you don't like, generations of school pupils have learned that a great strategy is to argue to their parents that the teacher wasn't measuring the things that really matter. Granted, focusing on maths, science and reading takes a very utilitarian view of education. But it would be wrong to imagine that other countries do not have similar concerns and provide school curricula that go well beyond these basic skills.

Only by improving the skills of the workforce can the competitiveness of the economy and living standards be maintained. Education plays a central role in this process.Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, argues passionately that improved cognitive performance is the key determinant of economic growth. He says that if other countries could be brought up to the Pisa score of Finland, there would be a vast improvement in world economic performance.

Hanushek's argument may be esoteric, but the pressure to focus on the types of skills tested by Pisa is growing. CBI Scotland wants pupils to study maths and science throughout their time at school. Universities are under increasing pressure to focus on Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

The Pisa survey also collects information on educational costs. Only seven countries in the world spend more per student than the UK. And Scotland spends about 11 per cent per head above the UK average. So we are certainly among the top spenders on education in the world.

Secondary teachers in the UK are paid around the same as in other countries. They work for longer hours, but their class sizes are smaller. And although British parents are typically better educated than those in other countries, our Pisa scores are still just above average.

Pisa scores are not an end in themselves, but they paint a disturbing picture of our future economic trajectory. This report card says "could do better".

• David Bell is professor of economics at the University of Stirling.