Heading off grid

3rd January 2014 at 00:00

There was a certain irony in this month's national headlines about the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which was that they were worlds apart from so much of what Scotland's education system is now trying to achieve.

Yes, of course evidence that the gap is being narrowed between deprived children and others is of fundamental importance and to be welcomed - it is a key priority of the Scottish government. And yes, of course it is reassuring to read that Scottish children are performing above the average according to specific measures for applied skills in reading, maths and science that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development values for the global economy.

But where is the evidence of the creativity, flexibility and free thinking to which Scotland now aspires? Where is the hard evidence of all those other achievements beyond the core curriculum, and of greater well-being?

The Pisa statistics, showing Scotland outperforming the rest of the UK in maths and reading but trailing behind England in science, were based, as the government stressed, on assessments of the last cohort of 15-year-olds to pass through the 5-14 curriculum. As such, they will indeed provide what Professor David Raffe at the University of Edinburgh calls "a baseline for assessing the new curriculum", albeit a somewhat limited one.

One of the main criticisms of Pisa's global league tables is that they encourage teaching to the test. Top-performing Asian countries such as China and South Korea excel at this, but have come under attack (as on the BBC's Question Time in December) for putting pressure on children to study for long hours in and out of school and for high suicide rates among young people. Half the Question Time audience lambasted them; the other half applauded their economic success.

Success, though, can come via different routes, as demonstrated by Finland, another of Pisa's high-flyers which is regularly held up in this country as a model for its liberal approach to education and lack of reliance on testing.

Scotland should be proud that it is carving out its own path, not just focusing on teaching the basics but trying equally to create scope for children from all backgrounds to maximise their abilities, strengthen links with their environment, nurture their more creative side and thereby boost their well-being and resilience in the face of whatever life may throw at them.

It won't happen overnight, and we certainly won't have got there by 2015 when the next Pisa study takes place. But Scottish politicians, educationalists, employers and parents will still - despite the survey's limitations - be looking for clear indications that Scotland can soar above that OECD average and make its mark once again as a world leader in education.

Gillian Macdonald is a former editor of TESS.

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