Editorial - Can Scotland join the Polish culture club?

17th January 2014 at 00:00

You can't help but think that if Scotland, like Poland, suddenly started to excel in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey, the reaction would be similar: what's wrong with the survey?

That, however, is not the question preoccupying TESS this week - Pisa's flaws have already been explored in these pages. Today, we are more interested in how Poland has done it.

A more inclusive education system, the introduction of national examinations and changes to the curriculum have all had a part to play in the country's new-found success, as our cover story reveals (see pages 16-18).

Once upon a time, Polish students had eight years of primary education before being siphoned off into either a secondary or a vocational school. Now, every student attends a new type of school called a "gymnasium" for three years between primary and upper secondary, extending the period of comprehensive education by a year.

According to the director of Poland's Educational Research Institute, Dr Michal Federowicz, lower performing students have flourished in these new schools - perhaps because the teachers who opt to work in them tend to be motivated and comfortable with change, qualities that also make them better at their jobs.

Like Poland, Scotland has extended its period of broad general education through Curriculum for Excellence, but that's not where the similarities end. CfE bears more than a passing resemblance to the new curriculum in Poland, with its emphasis on literacy and numeracy, skills and outcomes.

Poland credits this new curriculum with its latest leap up the league tables. The first test for CfE, meanwhile, will come in the next Pisa results in 2016.

So Scotland and Poland appear to be heading in similar directions. Poland also makes a good comparator for Scotland because it is a closer cultural fit than the Asian nations that tend to do well in Pisa.

Nevertheless, there are important differences. One Polish school leader commented in the press that the limitations of the Communist regime had created a thirst for knowledge, and its lack of technology a love of books. Such qualities and good habits had been passed on to today's young people by their parents, he argued.

And Dr Beata Kohlbek, who runs the Polish Saturday school in Hawick, has said that Polish children often comment that school in Scotland is like a holiday.

So although international comparisons make for an interesting read, they should be treated with caution. When Finland was flavour of the month, Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg pointed out that his country's wacky, inventive spirit made it impossible to copy. Finland was home to one of the most successful education systems in the world but also to the sauna, the air guitar and the world wife-carrying championships, he said.

Take from that what you will.

emma.seith@tess.co.uk.

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