Another day, another damning indictment of Scottish education. A few months ago it was the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Now it is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, Education at a Glance, a somewhat euphemistic title given the size of the report. The Education Minister will see this report as further justification for his crusade on raising standards, but he will no doubt choose to ignore one all-important statistic, that the UK spends just 4.6 per cent of its gross domestic product on education and ranks 23rd out of 25 countries studied. Some of our industrial competitors spend up to 5 per cent more .
The more surveys, the greater the number of statistical contradictions: for example, Greek pupils spend twice as much time on homework as Scottish pupils, but in the TIMSS survey they performed worse than Scots in both maths and science. Do we conclude that less homework improves performance? According to the OECD report, the Greeks spend an average of four and a half hours a night on homework? What time do they get to bed? Perhaps the weans are so knackered they are unable to concentrate on the TIMSS tests.
Some of the OECD data strains credibility since like is not usually being compared with like, sometimes to the extent that valid comparisons cannot be made. Figures relating to teacher preparation and marking time must be considered in relation to class contact time, which in many countries is considerably lower than in Britain. Those relating to homework must take account of the length of the pupil day, which is shorter in some countries than others. A teacher with more classes is obliged to set less homework per class. Otherwise the workload can become overwhelming, especially in subjects like English. So here is an original thought. Arguments for more investment are always couched in terms of smaller class sizes. That is fine in primaries, but in secondaries I wonder how many teachers would vote for less class contact time. Lessons could be more thoroughly prepared, more homework could be set and marked, pace the Greeks, and there would be more time for curriculum development.
Much of the data in these surveys is quantitative: more automatically means better. Quality of education is as important as quantity, but it would be well nigh impossible to have a range of international measures of quality of any meaningful validity, although work has been done with parental perception and job satisfaction. Teachers in Austria appeared to be a very happy bunch: they are extremely well paid. But contradictions emerged. Spanish teachers are among the keenest on setting homework, but according to the OECD report, they were not highly regarded by parents.
Still, it is becoming difficult to wriggle off the hook of suspect Scottish standards based on years of complacency. Quality in education is the product of a large number of interacting factors and real improvement will be achieved only if those of the greatest significance are identified. The risk is that insignificant but highly visible factors are selected with the result that the underlying problems remain.
Setting targets is one example: cheap, easy to do, easily measurable, but does it mean real improvement? The other grand obsession is with the early years of secondary school, from where it would appear all ills in the system flow. The fragmented curriculum causes a decline in performance over secondary 1 and secondary 2. The "fresh start" and the move to a subject-based curriculum are at the origins of the problem, according to the arguments.
In cases like this, the lack of any proper educational debate in Scotland always results in an establishment view dominating until it is realised how horribly short-sighted we all were, whereupon a new mantra is taken up. There have been so many instances that there is insufficient space to list them. As for S1 and S2, it might be useful to make a few international comparisons.
The early secondary curricula of many European countries are just as fragmented as our own and can be even more so since it is common to study two foreign languages and there are usually other courses such as civics, sadly lacking in Scotland. Some systems are selective and this reduces the fragmentation a little, for example by eliminating practical subjects from academic courses. In unenlightened and politically incorrect countries boys do not take home economics, nor girls technical subjects, but subject-based curricula are the norm throughout the world in secondary education. There are more similarities than differences between secondary curricula, so it is unlikely that curriculum structure is the real cause of our problems here.
What about the decline in the rate of educational development in S1 and S2 and the underperformance of boys? In separate studies in England, Western Australia and Japan, it has been shown that the phenomenon is not unique to Scotland. As for boys at the puberty stage, studies of brain growth show that the rate of increase in the brains of 11 to 13-year-old girls is three times that of boys of the same age-group (although the boys catch up with a bigger increase around the age of 16).
Setting standards is not the same as raising them. In a number of schools across England, standards are being dramatically raised among 11 to 13-year-olds and the effect is proving to be long-term. These children are not high-fliers and they are not being "hothoused". They are in the main pupils of moderate ability who are following a learning programme called "Thinking Science" developed by the CASE (Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education) team at King's College, London. The materials have been available for a number of years and new ones in mathematics are now being trialled.
Monitoring over many years indicates that schools and classes using CASE materials show dramatic improvements in GCSE results in comparison with control schools not using the materials. Although the materials are science based it is the teaching methodology that is making the difference since improved performance is not restricted to science but is appearing across all subjects. The venture is the culmination of 20 years of work by Professor Michael Shayer, who reasoned that to achieve higher standards you literally had to find a way of making pupils more intelligent. The revolutionary CASE method has succeeded in doing just that by using what is effectively the Socratic method. Using "cognitive conflict", teacher and pupils engage in active discussion over the meaning of what they find out in CASE lessons.
CASE is what is known as an intervention programme around which the existing science course fits, so pupils can follow their usual curriculum. Teachers have to change to a new style of teaching but those adopting CASE find the change stimulating and begin to use the same methods in other science lessons. Other departments have become interested and have adapted the methods to suit their own subjects.
If we want to raise standards, rearranging the deck-chairs with homework policies, more testing and rewriting environmental studies will do little good. Perhaps teachers should think about working smarter instead of harder. What happens in the classroom between teacher and pupil is what really matters. New methodologies such as CASE should be tried since a policy of curriculum change based on minimal change takes us nowhere. Many find change uncomfortable at first, but as the great Ben Hogan said: "If you change your grip and it still feels comfortable, then you haven't changed your grip."
Wilson Flood is a former science adviser.