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Substance over style

In a recent Newsnight discussion about the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results, the presenter asked why Scotland was not following Westminster's lead in undertaking radical reform of the education system. The countries have comparable results but very different interpretations of what they mean for policy. The implication was that Scotland was being complacent.

How much confidence should we have in Pisa? We must be cautious about reading too much into it. International testing programmes are fraught with difficulty and open to technical and cultural distortions. Countries differ in the conditions surrounding the assessments, such as the extent to which the young people involved are encouraged to take it seriously. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development tries to minimise such factors, but advises caution in making fine distinctions between countries. And Pisa measures only a subset of what matters so should not be allowed to undermine progress towards other outcomes. But it does provide helpful insights into our comparative performance over time and in relation to other systems.

The optimistic message is that our young people perform well in relation to most of their peers in other countries. We may also be mitigating some of the intractable effects of deprivation on learning. But there is no reason why our young people should perform less well in, say, science. Are their Australian, Canadian or Irish peers better at it? No, and we need to bridge such gaps in their learning.

The ingredients for that improved performance are already embedded in Curriculum for Excellence. If we succeed in enabling many more young people to achieve level 3 and level 4 outcomes, then our comparative standing will improve. That would not be at the expense of other important results. We need to have a "broad general education" that is consistently challenging. We do not need to search for magic bullets from other countries.

Curriculum for Excellence is the right agenda. It is radical and has enjoyed political and professional support. We need to see it through. We must also ensure that we build the confidence and capacity of our teachers to make that happen. That will require similarly powerful and continuing support for the review Teaching Scotland's Future.

Sustained and meaningful change will not stem from structural pyrotechnics but from establishing elements that will help reform take root in classrooms. That requires consistency and ensuring that those involved believe in what they are being asked to achieve. Radical change need not be about "shock and awe". It takes perseverance and hard work, and requires professional commitment supported by brave and insightful leadership that values substance over style.

Graham Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of the review Teaching Scotland's Future.

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