The image of Scottish education as “rampantly failing” is down to the “wild misreading of Pisa data” and a focus on the attainment gap, according to the outgoing chief of a national body.
Colin Mair, who has just retired as chief executive of the Improvement Service, which scrutinises and works with councils in Scotland, says Scottish education has been on “a journey of continuous improvement” and the attainment of pupils from the most deprived areas has improved fastest.
He conceded in an interview with Tes Scotland that a “horrible” attainment gap still existed between rich and poor.
But Mr Mair said the system was currently producing “the best-qualified generation of Scots, without a doubt”.
National qualifications – not the disappointing results in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) – should be used to measure the Scottish system’s success, he said.
However, Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, said that attainment data cannot be compared over time because exams today do not measure the same things as they did a decade ago.
Mr Mair said: “There are deeply compelling statistics and data on the level of the improvement in the system: we have increased the number of kids moving from school to higher education; we have increased the average tariff score.
“This is the best-qualified generation of Scots in history, without a doubt, unless you are wanting to go the whole hog and embrace the conspiracy theory that says this improvement is entirely to do with dumbing down.”
He said the attainment gap was “still horrible, large and substantial”. But he stressed that children from poorer communities were doing better educationally than in the past, and that the teachers driving that improvement “deserve to have that recognised”.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said the narrative of apparent failure around Scottish education has been “hugely damaging to the morale of the profession and deeply disrespectful of the very real achievements of our young people”.
He added: “While we do need to recognise that improvements are still required, the fact is that we have a high-performing education system here in Scotland.”
A Scottish government spokesman said that “Scottish education is good and is getting better”, adding that there is still work to do to ensure all children “have the best opportunity to succeed regardless of their social circumstances or additional needs”.
This is an edited version of an article in the 13 April edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.