“Scotland used to have a world-class education system” is a familiar cry from critics of contemporary education in Scotland. Is this an accurate claim? The evidence in my subject, mathematics, doesn’t seem to suggest so.
In the 1930s and 1940s education in Scotland was quite unrecognisable to today. In these pre-comprehensive days, 87 per cent of pupils left school at the age of 15 or younger.
The situation then is barely worth comparing to the education system we have now. Junior and senior secondary schools were the norm of the time and transition between the two at age of 14 was near impossible, while social stratification was ingrained.
Maths and science: What does Pisa tell us about Scottish education?
Scotland had two internationally relevant projects in the 1960s and 1970s. First, Geoffrey Sillito of Jordanhill College of Education led the Scottish Mathematics Group and the development of their comprehensive-ready textbooks. Then, Geoffrey Giles of the University of Stirling led the Fife Mathematics Project. While there was much to be learned from both of these programmes, it is hard to argue that either initiative has had the long-lasting impact on attainment in Scottish comprehensive education that might have been hoped for.
Around the same time, the International Study of Achievement in Mathematics: A Comparison of Twelve Nations showed that relative to other “Western” nations Scotland was middle of the road. A comprehensive sample of 13-year-olds placed Scotland slightly below England and significantly behind the leading nation, Japan; this is very similar to recent data. The survey also considered the top 4 per cent of achievers in the "final year prior to university". For these pupils, equivalent to contemporary Advanced Higher pupils, Scotland placed last.
Scotland has in the past participated in Timss (Trends in International Maths and Science Study), which focuses on mathematical content and understanding versus the problem-solving nature of Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment). Scores in the 1990s and 2000s were consistently slightly below average for the Primary 4 and S2 pupil. Renewed participation in this study, could be used positively to help to improve mathematics education in Scotland. Valuable information on specific mathematics content which could inform reform in curriculum, textbooks or teaching approaches could be drawn from Timss.
In 1992 25 per cent of pupils achieved a Standard Grade pass at Credit level. Compare this to contemporary attainment at National 5, where almost 36 per cent of S4 achieved a pass in 2019. This is a significant achievement. And a glance at the respective papers shows that the mathematics demanded of pupils isn’t easier now, although, there has been a reduction in contextual problems. This may be, I conjecture, partly reflected in our Pisa rankings.
Much has been made of the decline in Pisa scores, the focus of which is problem solving, a stated aim for mathematics under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Pisa shows how we have thus far failed to meet this intention of CfE. The required structural changes to facilitate this focus has not been made.
As Hugh Burkhardt, emeritus professor at University of Nottingham, has explained, assessment drives learning and teaching. This is the nature of secondary education. The Scottish Qualifications Authority's (SQA) own assessments do not demand much in the way of genuine problem solving, particularly since National 5 replaced Standard Grade Credit.
In addition to change of assessment, for problem solving to genuinely become the core focus of the curriculum we could learn from Singapore. Recognising the need to focus on problem solving, the Singaporean Ministry of Education reduced other curriculum content to provide the space and time so that teaching specifically focused on this could occur.
Scotland can learn from this: while a decline in Pisa paints a bleak picture in the media, I would be careful about making further inferences, beyond problem-solving capacity, about Scotland’s mathematics attainment from Pisa.
While I don’t think we can claim Scottish education is “world class” in terms of attainment – today or in the past – I do think there is evidence it has improved in many ways. Equity of access and potential for progression is better than it has ever been. For instance, the new applications of mathematics qualifications are equitable and allow a variety of pathways.
The greatest asset, though, is the teaching community. I write this on a weekend where 900 mathematics teachers attended the Scottish Maths Council conference. Why? To do our very best for Scotland’s young people. We are in a positive place.
There are reforms that could be made, changes to assessment, improved integration of National 4 and 5, better support for professional learning (I enviously glance at the Maths Hub model in England). Regardless, I believe there is much to be proud of and much to be optimistic about for continued improvement.
Chris McGrane is a principal teacher of maths in Scotland. He tweets @ChrisMcGrane84