Are Scottish and English education closer than thought?

The UK education systems are closer than they often seem – and share many of the same problems, says Pisa guru

Are Scottish and English education closer than we thought?

Do we overstate how different Scottish education is from other parts of the UK?

That was certainly the impression I was left with after asking Pisa's Andreas Schleicher this week whether he considered the four UK systems to be fundamentally different.

The Scottish and English systems are widely seen as being ideologically distinct and growing ever further apart. However, the four home nations are not as different as people in the UK think them to be, insists Schleicher – and their Pisa scores are not so very different, either, when compared to the extremes of performance in other countries.


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“Within the UK, you would see [systems] as very, very different [but] if you look at the results, they are broadly similar – Wales trails a little behind,” said Schleicher, as the latest Pisa results emerged.

He added: “I don’t think that from an international perspective I would look at them as [being as] different as you would do from within the UK context.”

The differences in both education approaches and Pisa scores that Schleicher sees in the UK are marginal when set against the international picture.

Schleicher – to give him his full title, the director for the directorate of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – saw an overall picture of modest improvement in the UK. However, at the current rate of progress, it would take “a very long time” for the UK to catch up with the Pisa leaders.

Of course, UK educators often console themselves that, while the likes of Singapore and China may rate highly in Pisa, at least we don’t make our pupils cram in the knowledge like they do.

But that’s a “stereotype” that is 20-30 years out of date, according to Schleicher, who says that students in those Asian systems are actually better at dealing creatively with complex information and – topically – spotting fake news. Indeed, he insists that cramming is a bigger problem in the UK.

All of the UK could also learn from Estonia, the rising star of Pisa, where there is a “strong culture” of early-learning and nurseries are less “schoolified”– Estonians start school at 7 – and there is more focus on social and emotional development than cognitive learning.

The UK also contrasted with the “nimbleness” of the Estonian system, where “you don’t find a heavy accountability system” and the ministry of education is only “loosely connected to schools”.

There’s a tendency for Scottish education to reassure itself that, whatever problems there may be, at least we don’t have – to give two examples – the suffocating accountability of Ofsted and Wild West of England’s academies system.

The message from Schleicher was clear, however: Scotland and England are not so very different – and have many of the same problems.

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