Scotland's Pisa results: Severe declines in maths, science and reading show 'Curriculum for Excellence' isn't working – Professor Lindsay Paterson

The focus of Scotland’s school curriculum on skills and well-being, rather than the acquisition of systematic knowledge, has been accompanied by a slide down the international Pisa league tables

The Scottish results in the latest Pisa report are dismaying. The Programme for International Student Assessment is the gold standard. It tests the knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading and science of a representative sample of 15-year-olds in each country. It has been run since the turn of the century, and is so widely respected that around half the countries in the world now take part.

Since the last assessment in 2018, Scotland’s attainment has declined severely. In mathematics, it is down by the equivalent of nearly a whole year of schooling. That means that the typical 15-year-old now is doing no better than a 14-year-old in 2018. In reading, the decline amounts to half a year’s school work. In science, it is down by the equivalent of one school term.

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The understandable reaction would be to blame the disruption caused by Covid. Schools were shut for nearly five months, with only patchy online lessons in their place. Certainly, that is part of the explanation, and the Pisa scores declined in most countries.

Long-term decline in educational attainment

But the authors of the Pisa study found that, across countries, there was only a weak relationship between the decline and the extent of closures. Some countries even showed a rise of attainment – for example, Ireland in science. The Scottish decline in mathematics was greater than in England, even though they had similar patterns of school closure.

In any case, the recent Scottish decline is not new. It dates in these studies from at least 2012. Between then and the latest study, the Scottish drop in mathematics was equivalent to about 16 months’ loss of schooling. In science, it was 18 months, and in reading it was eight.

It's even worse than that. Scottish performance is now lower than in England at all points in the distribution of attainment, but it is particularly poor for the highest-attaining pupils – Scotland is not serving its most able students well.

Scotland's educational performance has declined again on the Pisa international league tables (Picture: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)Scotland's educational performance has declined again on the Pisa international league tables (Picture: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
Scotland's educational performance has declined again on the Pisa international league tables (Picture: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

What’s gone wrong?

Social inequality in Scotland is now worse than in England in mathematics and probably also in reading. These gaps are growing. So despite the Scottish policy attention on narrowing inequality, the actual gap is getting worse.

What is the explanation? If Covid is only partly to blame, and if Scottish policy on poverty is no better than in England, why have the Scottish results dropped off a cliff? The full answer is bound to be complex, but an inescapable culprit is the new curriculum – the so-called Curriculum for Excellence – which has been put in place since 2010 with the support of all parties in the Scottish Parliament. Its main theme has been skills and students’ well-being, rather than their acquisition of systematic knowledge.

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 policymakers in Scotland to do something about it?

Lindsay Paterson is an emeritus professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh



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