Data about Scottish education 'poorest since 1950s'

A lack of data means 'speculation and whim' drives Scottish education policy, says the Commission on School Reform

Henry Hepburn

Data about Scottish education poorest 'since 1950s', says Commission on School Reform

A lack of reliable data makes it difficult to tell whether standards in Scottish school education are rising or falling, according to a new paper, from Commission on School Reform (CSR).

The CSR says that “we know less now about the performance of Scotland’s schools than at any time since the 1950s”, after the scrapping of domestic surveys of pupil performance and the withdrawal of Scotland from international surveys other than Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment).

CSR chair Keir Bloomer said: “A debate rages about how our schools, teachers and pupils are performing, with many statistics exchanged but few incontrovertible conclusions being reached. The continuing disagreements say something important and profoundly unsatisfactory about the information that is available."

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He added: "There ought to be a solid foundation of factual information that will allow constructive discussion to take place. Unfortunately, no such foundation exists. Pisa is the only example of international comparison available. Yet, even when the message was as damning as last week’s results, there is an official unwillingness to face facts.  

“Has there been a narrowing of subject choice in S4? Has it been accompanied by a fall in standards? Is performance in Higher rising or falling? Is the proportion of young people leaving school without any qualifications reaching an alarming level?

'Lack of data' on Scottish education

“We know less now about the performance of Scotland’s schools than at any time since the 1950s. Unfortunately, there seems to be little thought given to which measures are best able to provide valid and relevant answers.”

Professor Lindsay Paterson, co-author and member of the CSR, said: “The advent of devolution two decades ago raised hopes that policymaking in Scottish education would become more evidence-based, and that the evidence would be more reliable and relevant. 

“In practice, the evidence base for Scottish education has deteriorated drastically. Scottish education policy is now based on speculation, ideological whim and partisan rivalry. No worthwhile policymaking is possible in such a context.”

The CSR – which was set up by think tanks Reform Scotland and the Centre of Scottish Public Policy – calls for the following action to restore confidence in Scottish educational data and improve the education system:

  • A Scottish government commitment to maximise the amount of objective data on the performance of Scotland’s school education system.

  • The introduction of a new sample survey of performance in key curricular areas during the phase of  "broad general education".

  • Scotland should rejoin international surveys such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (Timss) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).

  • The government should develop in consultation a comprehensive set of measures of performance in the senior phase and at the point of leaving school.

At First Minister's Questions yesterday, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that "compared to the last Pisa study, the performance in science and maths, according to independent statisticians, is stable".

But she added: "That is not good enough in my view."

Ms Sturgeon said Pisa had shown "significant improvement in reading" and that efforts such as the Scottish Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Fund were contributing to that.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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