Scots schools tread water as rival nations move ahead

SCOTLAND'S education system is struggling to improve at the same rate as other developed nations with 16 per cent of Scottish 15-year-olds struggling to read, a report has revealed.

Education experts claimed the Scottish education system was "treading water" in comparison to its competitors following the publication of an internationally recognised study that assesses teenagers' ability at reading, maths and science.

Despite the billions of pounds poured into the education system since devolution, Scottish pupils are schooled in an "average" system that still sees children with a background of deprivation struggle to keep up with those from affluent areas.

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The findings of the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) also appeared to cast doubt on the key Scottish Government policy to lower class sizes with high-performing countries reporting more crowded classrooms.

Worldwide 470,000 teenagers, including 2,631 Scots, took part in the study, which uses a complex points system to measure pupils' abilities in reading, mathematics and science.

The PISA study is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the body that represents 34 of the world's wealthiest countries.

The study is one of the few markers that can be used to compare the Scottish system against other countries.

Although Scotland outperformed England when it came to maths and reading and was still slightly above the OECD average in all three subjects, experts questioned whether pupils' attainment levels were strong enough. Analysis of the results showed that in 2000 Scottish pupils' attainment levels in reading were 5.6 per cent above the OECD average, 6.6 per cent above the average in writing and 4.4 per cent above the average in science.

In 2009, Scotland had drifted towards the average with attainment only 1.4 per cent above in reading, 0.6 per cent above in writing and 2.6 per cent above in science.

"We are falling closer to the average and that means that other countries must be overtaking us," said David Bell, Professor of Economics at Stirling University. "Other countries seem to be improving faster than us and I don't think that is something that bodes particularly well."

The report indicates that mean maths scores dropped by 18 points between 2003 and 2006 and have now fallen by another seven points to 499. Scores in reading are steady at 500, although 26 points below the 2000 level.In science, scores have been steady at 514 points over the past 10 years.

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The Education Secretary, Michael Russell, claimed the results showed that the slide in performance had been "firmly halted" and added that the PISA study had disproved the "inaccurate myth" that Scotland was falling behind England.

But Michael Davidson, a senior education analyst for the OECD, said Scotland was "treading water".

Mr Davidson said: "Its performance is around average except in science where it is above average. The question is - is average good enough? Countries that have made advances have tackled issues vigorously.

"In Scotland around 16 per cent of 15-year-olds are struggling in reading. Scottish education appears to be standing still despite significant spending and reforms over the last 10 years."

The survey found that 16 per cent of students performed lower than the level considered by OCED to be the baseline for effective participation in life.

The report, called the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) indicates that children from less well-off backgrounds in Scotland do not do as well as they might in the education systems of countries such as Canada, Finland and Turkey.

Turkey, for example, had seen its attainment in science jump by 30 points.

Success seems to be linked to measures such as changes to teacher training, publication of a school's results, fewer constraints for frontline staff and early identification and support for children in danger of falling behind.

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The PISA study also found that some of the most successful countries such as Japan and Korea, teachers were paid higher salaries but class sizes were high.

When it came to reading, around 43 per cent of Scottish students reported that they do not read for enjoyment. Twenty-seven per cent read for enjoyment for 30 minutes or less per day, a further 17 per cent read for more than 30 minutes, but less than one hour per day. One tenth read for between one and two hours per day and three per cent for more than two hours daily.

Only 33 per cent read fiction regularly with Scotland finding itself below the OECD average in its index of reading diversity.

Ann Ballinger of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association said: "Unfortunately, young people in deprived areas are less likely to read. Reading is a skill that comes as much from the home as it does from the school."

Labour's education spokesman Des McNulty said: "These statistics show Scotland is falling behind many of the leading nations."

Liz Smith MSP, Conservative education spokeswoman, said: "The sad but simple truth is that We are falling down the league tables."

Classroom discipline was similar to other countries.

Nevertheless 34 per cent of students reported noise and disorder and 15 per cent reported that they feel students cannot work well.