Alex Massie: Students can’t all be above average

On the face of it, improved exam results are a good thing ' but some schools only put forward children they know can pass. Picture: PA
On the face of it, improved exam results are a good thing ' but some schools only put forward children they know can pass. Picture: PA
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Comparisons with other countries are more revealing of Scotland’s achievements in education than the improvements we’re seeing in Highers results, writes Alex Massie

Each week Garrison Keillor, the American humorist and radio presenter most renowned for the radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, delivers a gentle monologue recounting the latest developments in the fictional Minnesotan town of Lake Wobegon. Each week it ends with the same line: “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

The news from Loch Wobegon this week suggests all our children are above average too. Thousands of Scottish children received their exam results this week and, for many, it was a day of jubilation. For the seventh consecutive year the Highers pass rate increased. This year the pass rate reached 77.4 per cent, while the results in other exams were equally impressive. The pass rate for Advanced Highers increased to 82.1 per cent. All this, of course, is very encouraging and a proper reward for a great deal of hard work on the part of teachers, parents and, most especially, pupils.

Poke beneath the bonnet, however, and the inner workings of the examination system begin to look more complicated. Standard Grades, sat for the last time, demonstrated their obsolescence as 98.9 per cent of Standard Grade exams were passed. An examination that is, functionally, impossible to fail is not an examination liable to be respected by parents, employers or even pupils. Despite teachers’ concerns about its implementation in the senior school years, the new Curriculum for Excellence can hardly fail to be an improvement on discredited Standard Grades.

So is the Class of 2013 really so much better than the Class of 2000? The headline figures suggest so. There is, however, an interesting contradiction in official attitudes towards exam results. Government ministers and the teaching unions are happy to take credit for rising pass rates when it suits them, only to then argue that school league tables based on exam results fail to reveal the true picture. It is more complicated than that. There are no failing schools. All schools are above average and it is insulting to suggest otherwise.

But we know the present system is considered inadequate. If it were not so, there’d be no need for the Curriculum for Excellence. In a commentary published in yesterday’s Scotsman, Moyra Boland, director of learning and teaching at Glasgow University’s School of Education, warned that the new curriculum “offers teachers lots of challenges” but “I think we are right to be ambitious”. Thank heavens for that! It was a close-run thing, but the people wishing Scotland to be less ambitious have been defeated.

The annual discussion on grade inflation and the question of whether or not exams have been “dumbed down” is, in large part, a tedious distraction from the real issues. Researchers from Durham University have argued that grade inflation, while real, is less of a concern in Scotland than it is in England. Even so, the issue is less the questions asked in an exam but how the exams are marked. A notionally “easy” paper – such as this year’s Higher Maths exam – may be marked more severely and thus produce – as was seen in Higher Maths this year – a lower pass rate. Or vice versa, of course.

One criticism of school league tables has at least some validity. Critics suggest that publishing league tables merely encourages teachers to “teach to the test” at the expense of wider educational interests. As I say, there is something to this. Teacher A may be better than Teacher B at preparing pupils for specific exams but, at least for some pupils, Teacher B may actually be the better teacher.

In any case, there is evidence that the system is being “gamed”. There is no need to take my word for this. As Moyra Boland wrote yesterday, “Schools are simply getting better at knowing who to present for the exams and making sure they are better prepared. What’s the point of presenting a child knowing they are going to fail?” In other words, if a child is not considered a promising candidate, they will often simply not be entered for the exam. Exam results cannot, therefore, tell the whole story.

Which is lamentable, because large parts of that story should be a national scandal. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation splits the country, by postcode, into five tiers ranked on their level of relative deprivation. Scottish government figures reveal that in 2011, a mere 220 pupils from the bottom quintile (known as SIMD20 neighbourhoods) achieved three A grade passes at Higher level. A mere 58 pupils from the poorest 20 per cent of postcodes achieved five As. Almost no Scots from the most deprived backgrounds, therefore, achieved the exam results that would have given them a chance of studying at Britain’s most competitive and prestigious universities.

This is not educational inequality so much as a form of educational apartheid. There are many good schools in Scotland and international comparisons suggest that Scotland’s pupils perform at the OECD average. The well-respected Pisa tests, however, confirm that despite rising exam results domestically, Scotland’s position relative to the international competition remains average. In fact Scotland’s results are much the same as those reported from England. That is, they lag some way behind countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Finland and Hong Kong.

These test results, however, mask vast internal inequalities. As Gil Wyness, an education researcher at the London School of Economics, observed this week, the richest quarter of Scottish pupils performed at a level comparable with the average score in high-achieving Hong Kong but the poorest quartile’s results were on a par with low-achieving Turkey. The Scottish government’s own analysis of the 2009 Pisa tests concluded that “while socio-economic status is as likely as in other countries to affect students, the effect it has is likely to be greater than in other countries.” Which is another way of saying that it is better to be poor in other countries than it is to be poor in Scotland.

Many, perhaps most, Scottish pupils do respectably well. They work hard and have earned their examination successes. Nevertheless, the vast gulf between outcomes for the rich and poor should be considered a national disgrace. It cripples opportunity and squanders lives. An examination system that grants prizes to everyone may struggle to win respect, but a system that, effectively, excludes the poorest from even competing for prizes merits contempt.

The annual focus on exam results and fretting about grade inflation risks missing the point. International comparisons suggest Scotland’s education system is holding its own but no more than that. Moreover, by the time teenagers are sitting national exams it is often too late. At the age of 15, the bottom 20 per cent of children demonstrate reading levels more than two years behind the top 20 per cent. The rot sets in early.

Not the least of the challenges facing the Curriculum for Excellence is closing that gap. If it does so and if Scotland’s position relative to its international peers improves, then we may once again boast that Scotland’s educational system is something to be envied. But until then, celebrations of rising pass rates should be heavily qualified by the realisation that too many Scottish children are still failing to realise their potential or, in too many cases, lack even the opportunity to realise that potential.