Scottish pupils among top performers in new Pisa test

By Emma Seith on 22 October 2020

Recent Pisa results have brought bad news for Scotland but a new test suggests students are being well equipped to deal with globalisation

Scottish pupils are among the most likely in the developed world to understand and appreciate the perspective of others, demonstrate some of the most positive attitudes towards immigrants, and score highly on a test that assesses the ability to evaluate information and analyse multiple perspectives.

Students from 27 countries and economies, including Scotland, took part in Pisa’s 2018 assessment of global competence, which included a test focusing on three areas: the ability to evaluate information, formulate arguments and explain issues and situations; to identify and analyse multiple perspectives; and to evaluate actions and consequences.

Scottish students' mean score on the global competence cognitive test was 534. Only two countries scored more highly – Canada (554) and Singapore (576). (Hong Kong also scored more highly, achieving a mean of 542.)


Background: Pisa 2018 results reveal a mixed picture for Scotland

Listen: ‘The best thing about Scottish education is its passion for social justice and fairness’

Related: 'Ignore Pisa entirely,' argues top academic


The test was sat at the same time as Pisa 2018 – which tests 15-year-olds' performance in reading, maths and science and is carried out every three years.

Scotland’s results in these three areas were deemed disappointing by many when they were published in December of last year. They revealed that while Scotland could now say its 15-year-olds were above average for reading, they remained average at science and maths.

Now, however, it would seem Scotland has a Pisa result it can celebrate.

Dr Tarek Mostafa, the policy analyst in the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills who was in charge of the global competence report, told Tes Scotland: “The main takeaway messages from the report are: students in Scotland have very positive attitudes towards immigrants and when it comes to respect for people from other cultures. In addition to this, they perform well on the global competence cognitive test and Scotland is among the three top-ranking countries on the test.”

Commenting on the results, Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said that the Scottish pupils’ performance reflected “a broader societal commitment to what might be called the 'commonweal'”.

He continued: “Scotland’s students scored exceptionally well in showing empathy with others and being concerned about the type of world in which we live. This confirms that the nurturing of values, which our schools are committed to, is bearing dividends. Given the current pressures created by Covid-19, the report’s overall conclusion about the importance of schools as communities where young people can grow is timely. Pisa 6 argues that tomorrow’s schools will need to help students think for themselves and to develop a strong sense of right and wrong – something that Scotland’s teachers already successfully strive to support, as evidenced in the report.”

However, Dr Mostafa told Tes Scotland that Scottish students reported less positive attitudes when it came to “self-efficacy regarding global issues, interest in learning about other cultures, and students’ cognitive adaptability”.

“For the other indices, students report values close to the OECD average,” he added.

Scottish pupils were also among the least likely to speak several languages: 64.5 per cent of Scottish pupils said they did not learn foreign languages at school, which was around five times the OECD average of 11.7 per cent.  

The report entitled Are Students Ready to Thrive in an Interconnected World? said: “The largest proportions of correct answers on the cognitive test items focusing on examining local, global and intercultural issues were observed in Canada, Croatia, Hong Kong (China), Israel, Korea, Latvia, Scotland (United Kingdom), Singapore, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Chinese Taipei. In all of these countries and economies, the proportion of correct answers exceeded the overall average of 38 per cent.”

It added: “Students in Albania, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Korea, New Zealand, Scotland (United Kingdom), Spain and Chinese Taipei reported the most positive attitudes towards immigrants, with values in the index that were significantly higher than the OECD average.”

Ironically, perhaps, the two global issues topics with which students across all countries were the least familiar when they were tested in 2018 were global health issues, such as pandemics, and international conflicts.

Some 65 per cent of all students reported being familiar with each of these two issues; when it came to Scottish students, 59.4 per cent reported that they were aware of public health issues such as pandemics.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills, said: “Education is key to helping young people navigate today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world. The schools and education systems that are most successful in fostering global knowledge, skills and attitudes among young people are those that offer a curriculum that values openness to the world, provide a positive and inclusive learning environment and offer opportunities to relate to people from other cultures.”