Time to stop the boasting

9th January 2009 at 00:00

Politicians are often adept at burying bad news over the holiday period. It seems unlikely, however, that this will happen in the case of the findings of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TESS, December 12). Timss revealed that the performance of Scotland's 10 and 14-year-olds compared unfavourably with their peers in many other countries, including England. Fiona Hyslop has ordered a detailed analysis, with the promise of a "top-level summit" early in the new year. The results of the Timss research raise important issues not only about the particular subjects in question, but also about the self-image of Scottish education more generally.

My background is not in maths and science, so I am not qualified to offer prescriptions which will lead to rapid improvement. However, the first step in addressing any problem is to ask the right questions, and here I can make some suggestions. To what extent are the shortcomings attributable to outdated curricula and a failure to take account of new knowledge? Will A Curriculum for Excellence make a significant difference, or will the pace of adaptation be too slow?

There are also questions about the confidence of primary teachers in handling science topics, and the recruitment and retention of teachers in maths and science in secondary schools. Until the recent economic downturn, it was hard to attract well-qualified maths and science graduates (except in biology) into secondary teaching because of the availability of better-paid jobs elsewhere. And where we have recruited them, have they stayed in the profession or left after a few years? It is only by looking squarely at the evidence, that we can gain leverage on the nature and extent of the challenge we face.

There are wider lessons to be drawn from the Timss study. It should serve to provide a reality check on what The TESS report called "the self-congratulatory mantra" of Scottish education. It used to be the case that we were poor at giving credit for achievement and celebrating success. If anything, we have moved too far in the opposite direction, to the point where serial boasting has become the norm.

This is partly a reflection of the culture of our time, where the exaggerated language of advertising and public relations has seeped into our professional discourse, contaminating the values which education should stand for. By all means give credit where it is due, but let's be honest when we fall short of acceptable standards.

The constant appeal to "excellence" is illustrative of the tendency I am criticising. It is invoked with tedious regularity in both universities and schools - to the point where the term has become virtually meaningless. Donald Gillies of Strathclyde University has exposed some of the shallow thinking underlying current Scottish policy. Policy makers would do well to read Gillies's work: it would serve as a bracing antidote to the empty feel-good rhetoric that is a feature of too many official documents.

The "summit" promised by Fiona Hyslop will include officials, science educators and business representatives. I'm not sure that that combination of perspectives will come up with creative solutions. But, equally, I'm not convinced that the leadership class would be open to the kind of sharp analysis that is really needed.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the Univesity of the West of Scotland.

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