Learn from others, but not England

27th November 2009 at 00:00

The last few weeks have seen attempts to stir up a panic about school spending in Scotland and to create the illusion of falling standards. It must be music to the ears of politicians desperate to recoup from public services the billions they have thrown at the banks.

Much of the panic has been engineered by economist John McLaren and his colleagues at the Centre for Public Policy for Regions, whose report claims that Scotland can cut up to pound;680 million without damaging educational quality. His research briefing asserts that spending per pupil is far higher in Scotland than England. Ironically, he acknowledges some of the reasons comparisons are flawed. Population sparsity leads to many small schools, with higher management, buildings and transport costs, and can also affect class size.

The expensive 16-18 stage generally shows up as school spending here, but largely comes under further education in England (even half of A-levels are studied in colleges south of the border). The lower secondary stage (Years 7-9) is longer in England than in Scotland (S1-2). Thus, option choice makes four out of six school years in Scotland expensive, as opposed to two years out of five in 11 to 16 schools in England.

We should be glad that pupil-teacher ratios are better in Scotland than England: Westminster preferred to substitute low-paid assistants, rather than cutting class size. England's lowest achievers are often taught by low-qualified assistants.

The comparisons on outputs are equally flawed. McLaren is probably unaware of the scam used by Westminster politicians to create an illusion of fast- rising results. In recent years, Whitehall statistics count the vocational qualification GNVQ (Intermediate) as "equivalent" to four GCSE A*-Cs. A pupil with a GNVQ in computing and a C grade in art, for example, is classed as having "five A*-C grades or the equivalent". In New Labour rhetoric, 1=4. A GNVQ (Intermediate) is, arguably, not even worth one C, let alone four. My own comparisons suggest that the boundary is around an E.

Ministers were forced into using a new benchmark, five A*-Cs or equivalent including English and maths, but even this only needs three subjects (English, maths and a GNVQ) to make five.

The true picture emerges from subject comparisons: Scotland is 10 per cent ahead in English, 6 per cent in science and 18 per cent in languages, but 6 per cent behind in maths.

Arguments based on international tests are just as flawed. The Timss maths and science tests, based on school year groups, involve widely different ages. The cut-off point for school entry is August in England, not February. In many countries, lower achievers repeated years, so that a quarter of the sample are one or two years older.

For Timss 2007, the average age of Scottish primary pupils tested (9.8) was younger than almost every country that scored higher (England 10.2, Sweden 10.8, Denmark 11). Our secondary pupils averaged 13.7 years, England's 14.2, and the average across all higher-scoring countries was 14.4.

Similarly, in the primary literacy test Pirls, the average age of Scottish pupils was 9.9 compared with 10.3 in England. The other high scorers ranged from 10 to 11.4. The English score fell (553 to 539) from 2001 to 2006 - not comforting for those who want Scotland to copy England's literacy hour.

The Pisa test (in maths, science and reading, age 15) is the most reliable. In Pisa 2006, only four countries did significantly better than Scotland in science, eight in maths and five in reading. Scotland was equal to, or above, England in all three subjects. Despite Scotland's high poverty levels, only Finland had significantly fewer pupils with low scores, and only a few countries had significantly more high scoring pupils.

Simplistic comparisons are dangerous. English researchers (Tymms, Shayer) have shown how teaching to the test gives an appearance of improved attainment, while real standards fall.

Rather than England's broken system, let us look to the highest-scoring country, Finland:

- teachers qualified to Masters level;

- excellent learning support;

- outstanding libraries;

- very small secondary schools (average, 300 pupils);

- free and healthy school meals.

By contrast, budget cuts in this country will force schools to close, and herd pupils into very large and troubled schools.

Scottish education does have some serious problems, especially under- achievement linked to poverty, which gets worse in the secondary years. Perhaps we should initiate controlled experiments in some deprived areas: in many parts of Scandinavia, a team of four or five teachers covers most of the curriculum and provides pastoral and learning support to 60 to 100 pupils. This would provide much needed social stability and support, and raise achievement at no greater cost.

For a genuine improvement, we might consider:

- better support in introducing Curriculum for Excellence, to engage more young people in learning;

- strong CPD in thinking skills and cognitive development;

- a new focus on reading across the curriculum in upper primary and lower secondary;

- more authentic and challenging assessment, for example, Queensland's "rich tasks" to replace NABs.

Statistics raise big questions, but rarely provide ready answers. Relatively small national differences in test scores can distract us from wider educational and social aims. We have a lot to learn from other countries, but copying England's broken system is the road to disaster.

Terry Wrigley is a senior lecturer in education at the Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University.

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