Handicapped by disadvantage

14th December 2007 at 00:00
International experts are calling for 'a renewal of Scottish education'. Neil Munro reports.The team from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whose report on Scottish education was published this week, had no doubt about the challenges facing schools:

- the widening achievement gap from about P5;

- marked social differences in basic achievement during the compulsory years;

- declining student engagement and interest, especially in early secondary;

- marked gaps in exam results;

- staying-on rates that have ceased to grow;

- wide regional variations in post-compulsory education, linked to deprivation;

- "a worrying, comparatively high level of Neet" (pupils not in education, employnment or training), even using a limited definition;

- and inequalities in access to higher education.

The report states: "(These) challenges will test the 3-18 curriculum, for they are all measures of the distances to be made up through a renewal of Scottish school education, notwithstanding its high overall standing internationally."

The OECD team, led by Richard Teese, director of the centre for post-compulsory education and lifelong learning at the University of Melbourne in Australia, noted that Scottish education had been subject to almost continual reform for 40 years.

Yet his report, while acknowledging many strengths, points to stubborn and substantial gaps in achievement. It shows that the position and number of the lowest attaining 20 per cent of S4 pupils has barely changed at all between 1996 and 2006, while the average performance for all pupils at that stage has been rising.

Using tariff scores (Standard grade level 1 counts as 38 points, and at level 4 as 14 points, and so on), the low achievers have hovered below 60 points during those 10 years; the average has increased from 157 to 170 points.

The report notes: "Scotland presents a paradox. It performs at a very high level on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests - both in overall standard and equity. But viewed from the inside - in terms of national tests and qualifications - it is marked by inequalities."

The main challenge for Scotland, it continues, "is to make its comprehensive secondary schools work consistently well and equitably".

The report adds: "Little of the variation in student achievement in the country is due to differences between schools. Most is due to differences within schools. In Scotland, who you are is far more important than what school you attend and, at present, Scottish schools are not strong enough to ensure that 'who you are' does not count."

It points out that student achievement is more handicapped by socio-economic disadvantage than in almost any other OECD country - accounting for as much as 18 per cent of variance in maths performance, which is well out of line with comparator nations such as the Netherlands, Korea, Canada and Finland. In reading, too, socio-economic background accounts for twice as much variation as in Korea, Canada and Finland.

The report goes on: "Taken together, these findings suggest that young people from poorer backgrounds face significant barriers in accessing a system of high-performing schools ... the schools are high-performing, not mediocre, (but) young people from poorer backgrounds represent a large proportion of the total population of children in Scottish schools - every third primary school child lives in poverty and every fifth secondary school student."

The OECD team found there was considerable "formal equity" in Scottish schools, as measured by criteria such as student-teacher ratios, trained and specialist staff, facilities and other resources - and the views of students about their school experience are also positive and improving. But there remained "unequal openness or accessibility of good schools to young people from different social backgrounds. Comprehensive schooling favours equity, but does not guarantee it."

The OECD inquiry team suggested a new motto for Scottish education should be: "No equity without quality."

- The report, Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland, can be read in full on www.oecd.orgpublishing.


A "national innovation plan" to fund improvements through negotiated agreements with local authorities;

Extending the Scottish Survey of Achievement to all pupils;

Greater autonomy and financial transparency for schools and councils, including over staffing and the curriculum;

Standard grade exams should be phased out as the new 3-18 curriculum is implemented;

A Scottish Certificate of Education should be introduced for those leaving at the end of S4, S5 or S6 and "graduating" from college or employment training;

More consultation with students on the quality of their teaching and with teachers on their class-room experience;

Vocational courses for all from S3;

Better monitoring of school leaver destinations;

And the strengths?

Primary schools are "the greatest strength";

The "achievement gap" now widens later, from P5 onwards;

"Improvements in equity" in that pupils living in poverty are achieving more than they used to;

Comprehensive secondary schools which are non-selective and have common programmes;

Standards are rising in areas such as S2 maths and Standard grade;

"Consistently high performance" of 15 year olds, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment.

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