Scotland 'tarnished' by avoiding international surveys

Scotland had a 'long and venerable history' in large-scale international educational assessments, but the picture has changed in recent times

Dirk Hastedt

Map with Scotland viewed through magnifying glass

A new paper published this month by the Commission on School Reform recommends that Scotland re-join international surveys, including the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (Timss) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).  We agree.  

Scotland has a long and venerable history in the world of large-scale international educational assessments, having participated in the Pilot Twelve Country Study, which collected data in 1960, and was a precursor to Timss, and the First International Mathematics Study in 1964. This legacy has been tarnished, however, by the decision to cease participating in the modern incarnations of these studies since the mid-2000s.

Our two flagship studies focus on the basic school subjects that a young person needs to be a successful learner. Without good underlying reading abilities (measured by Pirls in P5), or solid maths and science foundations (measured by Timss in P5 and S2), any student will struggle with all the other subjects they go on to study.


Commission on School Reform report: Data about Scottish education 'poorest since 1950s'

Background: Scottish government explored leaving Pisa in 2010

Research: Withdrawing from international rankings has damaged teaching in Scotland


A real advantage of the four-year cycle of Timss is that cohorts can be tracked through late primary and early secondary, allowing for meaningful analysis of the educational value added in this phase.

Health checks for an education system

One of the great strengths of our studies is that they are curriculum-based, low-stakes assessments. Through their ties to the curriculum, they measure what students have actually learned in school, and don’t involve any stressful revision time.

International large-scale assessments are not competitions at an individual, school or even country level. Instead, they are designed as health checks for an education system. Timss and Pirls are diagnostic tools. They identify the symptoms, not the cure. Their results provide vital insights to help educators and education policy experts to find solutions tailored to the specific culture and needs of their education system. If countries don’t participate, they cannot learn how and where they can improve.

Timss and Pirls are not the only studies that Scotland is missing. The International Civic and Citizenship Study (ICCS) investigates students’ preparedness for undertaking their role of citizens in modern democracies, a topic of great importance now more than ever. Recent results from our International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) showed that alarmingly just 2 per cent of students use their critical thinking skills when searching for information online. How would Scottish students compare?       

Some 25 education systems from 23 EU member states took part in the most recent cycles of Timss and Pirls. Scotland, your neighbours are waiting for you to rejoin the international education community.

Dr Dirk Hastedt is the executive director of  IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement), the organisation behind the Timss and Pirls studies

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