On a study visit to Finland some years ago I was asked whether I believed that the Scottish education system was better or worse. By way of illustration, I recounted this story and concluded that rather than make a value judgment after such a short visit I preferred to say that our system was neither superior nor inferior, but different.
Reading about the latest comparisons between countries in overall scores in maths and science, which highlighted the relatively poor performance of Scottish pupils, I couldn't help but notice the headlines: "54 minutes to test a nation"; "Homework pushes mothers into violence - Hong Kong"; "Testing reform aims to cut suicides - Poland".
In previous editions of The TESS, I read of pressures on pupils, over-anxious parents and overworked teachers in other countries, some of whose students score high in league tables of achievement. A curriculum dominated by the three Rs may be only half the story and test results do not always sit comfortably alongside statistics on economic performance and on social conditions.
In case I am accused of complacency about our academic performance, I do believe that we must take stock from time to time. But I am not convinced that using the same or similar questions across continents always tells us what we need to know. Much depends on the questions that are asked and, possibly more so, on the points they are trying to prove. When I was at primary school 40 years ago, I am sure that I would have scored higher in many aspects of number and mental arithmetic than the brightest of primary children today. While I may be tempted to propose that this has something to do with my innate intelligence, the greater thoroughness of teaching methods then, or even the absence of calculators, I believe it has more to do with the narrowness of the curriculum in the fifties than with greater enlightenment in "the good old days".
I was not, for example, introduced to mathematics (as opposed to arithmetic), taken on field trips to explore my environment, allowed to develop skills in speaking and listening, or learn the basics of a foreign language. It was chalk and talk, learning by rote and all by the book, with the only practical activity taking place on Wednesday afternoons when I wove place mats in handwork. In short, there was much more time allowed to cover less ground.
There have been enormous improvements in the breadth and quality of primary education since the late sixties. Of course, mistakes have been made but, as we look for what was good in the old, let us not try to turn the clock back to a system that may have failed more children than it advantaged. If pupils are "failing" today (and I question that) are politicians who forced schools to broaden the curriculum via an all-embracing 5-14 development programme, which inevitably leads to spending less time on "the basics", prepared to take the blame as well?
Sadly, it is class teachers who not only have to introduce change, sometimes against their better judgment and almost always with less than adequate resources and training, but also have to face the flak if new methods are deemed ineffective. While politicians may be quick to criticise, they are rarely willing to take the blame themselves for the failure of policies.
It is a tribute to hard pressed staff that schools are much happier places nowadays, with greater recognition of children's individual differences. While some would argue that the Inspectorate has had to toe the line on Government policy in recent years, HMIs do not refer to a system which is in a dire condition. They have praised good practice in Scotland generally, while not being afraid to highlight deficiencies.
Few would question the need for vigilance and for a regular review of standards of achievement, to which international comparative studies make a valuable contribution. We need to identify proven methods in other systems, but only after testing them in the cultural and curricular context of our own provision should we adopt the best of them, and then only if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of imposing further change on a profession already suffering from innovation fatigue.
John Muir is adviser in primary education for Highland Council.