The Scottish inferiority complex is alive and well, as demonstrated by our willingness to pay more heed to an international education survey with strengths, but also “limitations”, than the data in our own system. That is the view of Colin Mair, who has recently retired as chief executive of the Improvement Service.
He points to the Pisa: a comprehensive guide report, compiled by the Improvement Service, which highlights several factors that might have contributed to Scotland’s falling scores.
For example, the margin of error suggests that there may have been “no real change” in the country’s maths score from 2012-15, and that changes in science and reading “may be much smaller than has been reported”.
The report also points out that, in 2015, a lower proportion of pupils taking part were in S4 (rather than S3) than in 2012, and that fewer pupils spoke English at home than in 2012 (93.5 per cent compared with 97 per cent).
The report states that if Scotland was to enter the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) independently, rather than as a UK “region”, it would not meet Pisa’s minimum sample size; 3,000 pupils in 109 schools took part in 2015, below the minimum national requirement of 5,250 pupils in 150 schools.
Mair adds: “We have remained in the top 30 per cent of countries. Whatever else that is, it’s not a catastrophe.”
However, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, argues that “Pisa is the only properly validated system of objective assessment” that Scotland has. He says the “continued upward trend” in qualifications is “difficult to compare over time”, as the curriculum has been “changing quite fundamentally from year to year”.
He adds: “The SQA [Scottish Qualifications Authority] can ensure, over the space of a few years, that it is measuring much the same thing, but over a longer period, because the curriculum is changing so much, it is very difficult to be certain.”
Paterson concludes that the best you could say about the Scottish education system’s performance, based on Pisa results, was that “there has been no improvement from 2012 to 2015”.