'Surfing the statistics tsunami of Pisa'

Digging beneath the Pisa headlines reveals illuminating data about Scottish education that is all-too-often overlooked, says Emma Seith

Pisa - reporters take

Pisa is a statistics tsunami, but the focus tends to be on the three headline statistics showing the mean scores achieved by 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. You could be forgiven for not realising the wealth of other data that Pisa contains.

A peek at the range of stories that appeared on the Tes Scotland news hub, though, begins to give an indication of the survey’s breadth.

Essentially, what Pisa involved last year was this: students sat two hours' worth of computer-based assessments in reading, maths, science and global competence, but they were also asked questions on a whole range of other topics, from how often they skip classes to whether they consider reading a hobby. Heads and teachers in the 107 schools that took part in Pisa in Scotland were also asked to fill out questionnaires; 87 headteachers responded and 1,445 teachers did so.


Analysis: What does Pisa tell us about Scottish education?

Pisa results: Is Scotland 'stagnating in mediocrity'?

Pisa day: What happened in Scotland?

Pisa data: No sign of attainment gap cash 'making an impact'

Pisa either side of the border: Are the Scottish and English education systems less different than we thought?


The findings from these surveys would on any other day be headline news, but on Pisa results day they can fall by the wayside and end up as little more than footnotes. But if we want to understand why Scotland is failing in its efforts to be above average for science and maths, it would do us no harm to pay a bit more attention to some of these other Pisa nuggets – especially now the dust has settled.

One statistic that struck me was highlighted in a National Foundation for Educational Research report. The NFER is responsible for delivering Pisa in the UK and publishes reports on the findings.

In one of those reports, Key Insights from Pisa 2018 for the United Kingdom, there’s a curved bar graph (it looks a bit like a rainbow) which shows that almost half of Scottish heads reported that teaching was hindered by a lack of teaching staff. Heads in the rest of the UK and the rest of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries were far less likely to report this: in the other UK nations, around a quarter of heads reported this; the OECD average was 27 per cent.

Scottish pupils corroborate this finding: 46.3 per cent of students said a lack of teaching staff affected their school to some extent; the OECD average is 32.6 per cent. More Scottish students were also in schools where teacher absenteeism was said to be a factor (30.5 per cent, well above the OECD average of 17.9 per cent).

Maybe this higher rate of sickness leave has something to do with that other OECD stat showing that Scottish teachers spend longer in front of classes and actually teaching than in other countries?

What strikes me about these statistics, though, is that we puzzle over how to improve our Pisa performance and how to improve attainment more generally – yet these figures highlight that we are struggling to get even the basics right.

For the 15-year-olds tested last year, the shortage of teachers – which we know is especially bad in maths and science – will likely have been a feature for the entirety of their secondary school careers.

Education secretary John Swinney says the way to improve attainment is to improve learning and teaching. But, crucially, he has missed out a step, because before you can improve learning and teaching you have to make sure there is actually someone there to deliver the lessons. Pisa suggests that on this front – despite myriad new routes into the profession introduced by the government – that we continue to flounder.

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