Why is Scottish education failing to deliver the long-promised pupil excellence and closure of the attainment gap in schools after two decades of much-vaunted policy-making and legislation? Two leading experts re-examine the roots of the problem in what was once ’the jewel in the British educational crown’.
Below, Lindsay Paterson explores the links between the Curriculum for Excellence and growing inequalities in attainment while, in a related post, Walter Humes excoriates the lack of real leadership in tackling Scotland’s long-standing and frustrating difficulties in this field. [See Lost Opportunities2]
The latest results for Scotland of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have come as a shock. Attainment is down, inequality is up, and there is little consensus about what needs to be done.
These assessments are of very high quality. They have been run by the OECD since the turn of the century; around half the countries in the world now take part. They measure the attainment of a representative sample of 15-year-olds in mathematics, reading and science, as well as collecting information on the students’ social background, attitudes to learning, and experience of school. They usually happen every three years, though the 2021 round was postponed by a year because of Covid.
The headline problems have been well-rehearsed. Scottish attainment has fallen strongly in the past decade. In mathematics, the fall was by 27 points, in reading by 13, and in science by 30. Expressed as the loss of years of schooling, the OECD estimates that these are approximately equivalent to respectively 1.4, 0.7 and 1.5.
Converting the Scottish changes into years of schooling is one yardstick of their significance. The other is to compare with the other parts of the UK. Although comparisons with further afield can be illuminating – and are implicit in the OECD’s conversion into years of schooling – the advantage of these UK comparisons is that they hold constant a large part of the social and political context of education, and so any differences are more likely to be due to specific features of the education systems. For example, the nature of social inequality arising in the labour market is similar across the UK, and so any different patterns of educational inequality are unlikely to be due to variation in the meaning of these background characteristics. Likewise, the policy response to Covid was very similar in all parts of the UK.
Big Scottish losses
The Scottish changes were all greater than in England, which had losses of around 0.2 years in mathematics and reading and 0.7 years in science. Moreover, a large part of this loss in England has occurred since 2018, and so is plausibly attributable to the disruption caused by Covid. In Scotland, by contrast, the decline has been persistent over the decade.
The Scottish decline in mathematics and science was much the same for male and female students, but in reading it was twice as great for females (0.9 of a year) than for males. This contrast in reading was similar in Wales and Northern Ireland. But in England, the sex contrast was much less pronounced, mainly because, since 2012 (or even earlier), boys’ reading has been improving faster than girls’.
In two other respects, the loss in Scotland from 2012 was greater in lower-attaining than in higher-attaining groups. For example, among pupils at the lowest 10% of attainment in reading, there was a fall over the decade of the equivalent of 1.7 years of schooling, whereas the highest 90% showed a gain of half a year. In mathematics, the contrast was between losses: 1.8 years in the lowest 10%, and 0.8 in the highest. In science, the losses were 2.4 years and 0.7 years.
These contrasts in Scotland in the lowest-attaining group were greater than in the other parts of the UK, where the change in mathematics over the decade was much the same across the range of attainment, and where, in science, the difference between the top and bottom 10% was much less than in Scotland. In England, indeed, a large part of the decline was, once more, due to the period since 2018. Thus the decade-long differential impact on low attainers in Scotland seems to be specific to Scotland. Moreover, although the losses in Scotland were greater for low attainers, the Scottish deficit compared to England was greater for high attainers.
Rising Scottish social inequality
There is a similar contrast in relation to socio-economic inequality. This is recorded in the PISA data by an index of ‘economic, social and cultural capital’. One way to measure inequality is to compare the attainment of students in the lowest-status and highest-status quarters of this index. In Scotland, the decline across the decade in all three measures was much greater in the lowest than in the highest quarters. Reading fell by the equivalent of 1 year in the lowest quarter but only a quarter of a year in the highest. In mathematics, the decline was 1.9 and 1 year, similar to science (1.9 and 1.2). As a result, social inequality increased by the equivalent of about 0.7 of a year in reading and science, and 0.9 of a year in mathematics.
In contrast, socio-economic inequality in all three measures was unchanged or fell over the decade in the other parts of the UK. That was not much to be proud of in Wales or Northern Ireland, where this was largely due to a greater decline in attainment by the highest-status students than by the lowest. In England, all social groups changed at a similar pace – gently upwards in reading and mathematics, and gently downwards in science. So English inequality barely changed.
We can sum all this up by concluding that current Scottish policy is not working, whereas current policy in England – whatever its faults – seems to have had some positive effects on attainment when compared over a decade.
Curriculum for excellence – or inequality?
Explanations are inevitably speculative, but a plausible candidate is Curriculum for Excellence. It has been in place across the whole of Scotland since 2010. Its main theme has been skills and well-being, rather than systematic knowledge. Abundant research from many countries (including England) shows that a curriculum of that kind tends to disadvantage students who are weaker academically. It also disadvantages students from low-status social groups because they are less likely to acquire systematic knowledge from home, partly because their parents are less likely to have advanced education themselves, but mainly because they cannot afford the experiences and equipment that only well-funded schools with well-educated teachers can provide.
This explanation is consistent with the growing inequality since 2012, and with the differences in that respect between reading and the other two domains. Most parents can teach their children to read, and can encourage them to read more. Fewer parents are likely to remember enough mathematics to teach their children beyond the end-of-primary stage. Science knowledge is even rarer, and learning science needs access to specialist equipment. So inequality is likely to be somewhat less in domains such as reading where the home can do more.
Defenders of the Curriculum for Excellence point out that there was already some decline in Scottish PISA scores before 2012. But this curriculum did not appear fully formed in one year. Schools had been encouraged to adopt it since about 2006, and its general themes – of skills and well-being over systematic knowledge – have been increasingly strong features of curriculum policy since the 1980s or even earlier. For decades, such changes have been proclaimed as part of a more student-centred approach to teaching and learning, with the intention of better preparing students for life.
The PISA data ought to remind us that rhetorical contrast of policy aims is never enough. If the Scottish curriculum is described as being more humane than the relentless focus on attainment in England, then that – even if true – gives priority to gentleness of process over the opportunities that follow from successful outcomes.
The low-social-class student in Scotland who leaves full-time education at age 16 having learnt in secondary-school science what a 14-year-old might have acquired a decade ago will have suffered a loss of opportunity that will last a lifetime.
For detailed figures on the PISA results for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales see here
Featured image: First Minister Humza Yousaf at the annual cabinet meeting with children and young people via Scottish Government flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Next: Walter Humes Lost Opportunities in Scottish Education 2: lack of leadership
See also: The Knowledge We Need by the author, Our Scottish Future