There was some good news for Scottish education in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results published yesterday. They showed an improvement in Scotland’s international rating in reading, up on 2015, and now just above the OECD average. However, reading results didn’t reach even 2012 levels, are still far below the 2000 and 2003 figures, and behind those in England.
Much more seriously, the scores in both maths and science are dismal. Scotland’s maths score is now at a record low, having dropped in every Pisa survey. Scotland was 31st overall in maths, below the OECD average, and behind countries like Latvia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
And, when it comes to science, a skill vital for Scotland’s future economic development, there has been another drop, with scores falling in every Pisa survey since 2006. Scotland now ranks 29th overall in science, with England 13th.
For a country which supposedly once had the best education system in the world, these are deeply depressing statistics.
This fresh data comes on the back of figures which call into question the SNP Government’s approach towards reducing the attainment gap in secondary schools. New figures show the attainment gap between the most deprived and most affluent students is actually increasing in about 50 per cent of high schools, despite the provision of ‘pupil equity funding’ targeted at students from disadvantaged background.
Among 100 secondary schools that received attainment funding of at least £98,000, 51 reported an improved performance by their most disadvantaged pupils, while 44 schools showed a decline. So there is precious little evidence that the approach being taken by the Scottish Government is paying dividends, despite the funds being invested.
There is concern amongst the educational establishment about the lack of objective data on the performance of Scottish schools. It was the SNP in government who pulled Scotland out of Timss, a long-running, large-scale international assessment of mathematics and science education, and Pirls, which looks at trends in reading achievement. In addition, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy has also been done away with, making it harder to measure what progress is being made.
But what we can tell from the data that is published is that, far from seeing improvements across the board, and despite some additional resources being put in, there continue to be serious concerns about the performance of Scottish education. We could once compare ourselves favourably to school results south of the Border, but on most measures we are now trailing behind. And this is despite the fact that spending per head on education in Scotland is much higher than the UK average, thanks to the Union dividend of nearly £2,000 per person in Scotland – a Union dividend which, of course, the SNP want to see taken away.
With a general election just over a week away, it is data such as these which should be at the centre of the political debate. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, asked to be judged on her record on education. And yet, throughout the election campaign, we have seen a relentless focus from her party on just one issue: independence.
Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear that every vote for the SNP in the general election is a vote in support of a second independence referendum. That is the one issue that SNP politicians are obsessed with, and it is little wonder that we see the failures in Scottish education exposed in the Pisa data when it is simply not the priority for Government that it should be.
Scottish voters next Thursday have the opportunity to use the general election to send a very clear and simple message to the SNP Government: it is time to get back to the day job. Whether it is health, or the performance of the Scottish economy, or what is happening in our schools, Scotland is being let down. For so long as we have a Government that is obsessed with constitutional change, and refusing to tackle the real issues that affect our everyday lives, we are going to have to put up with second best.
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife