Focus on 'fixing society' blamed for poor show

17th December 2010 at 00:00
Scotland must concentrate on the meat and potatoes of education if it wants a bigger slice of the Pisa pie, says academic

Scotland and its UK neighbours are unlikely to ever overtake the Far East in the educational performance league table because they treat schools as a panacea to society's ills.

That was the verdict of the former education dean of Glasgow University, Jim Conroy, as he and other education experts pored over the findings of the five volumes of the latest Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) report published last week.

As long as Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea - who dominated the tables alongside Finland - concentrate on a narrower core of "educational entailments", it will be difficult to challenge them, said Professor Conroy.

"They do remarkably well in maths, English and science because they spend a lot less time on other educational areas such as music, art or religion," he said.

And according to commentator Peter Wilby (TESS, page 21), countries such as Korea have a regimented education system which trains pupils to the test, while the Finnish language contains no irregular words, each letter making a single logical sound, making it easier to learn to read than other languages, such as English.

The difficulty with the Pisa survey - which measures 15-year-olds' performance in reading, maths and science at three-yearly intervals - is that it does not compare like with like, said Professor Conroy.

"There is a price to be paid for everything and one of the prices to be paid for our broad curriculum is less-than-joyous scores," said Professor Conroy.

"Until we confront the fact that schools are not there to pick up all the pieces from a creaking society, our scores will not get any better."

He also advocated more "setting" according to ability, although the Pisa report found that systems which graded students early on tended to perform least well.

"If you are a maths teacher and teaching a differentiated class, you can have one kid who can do quadratic equations and another who can only do long division - so you've got a problem," he said.

Stuart Farmer, vice-president of the Association for Science Education in Scotland, said he was particularly interested in comparing Scotland's performance in science with other English-speaking nations, such as high- performing Canada, rather than those in the Far East.

Key factors common to countries such as Canada were the high status of teachers, demanding high qualifications in teaching and regular good- quality continuing professional development.

But as far as Curriculum for Excellence was concerned, Mr Farmer said the main issues were: the lack of clear curriculum guidance for S3-4 on whether all pupils should study maths and at least one science; budget cuts affecting practical science provision; and the need for quality CPD.

"Science is an expensive subject and we are concerned that schools in some places are cutting back on the time devoted to it, which could affect the number of pupils doing science at Higher, Advanced Higher and university," he said.

elizabeth.buie@tes.co.uk.

  • Original headline: Focus on `fixing society' blamed for poor show in world rankings

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