Scottish Education Performance Falling, Says Study

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Performance in Scotland’s high schools has slipped according to new international research on education by BBC.

The Pisa report measures education standards among nearly 700,000 15-year-olds worldwide.

The report shows a long-term decline in Scotland’s performance in reading, maths and science.

Scottish ministers said Covid restrictions had a “profound impact” on education, and since the study, there had been further evidence of recovery.

Within the UK’s four devolved education systems, England was the highest achiever in all three subjects.

Wales was the lowest performing within the UK for all subjects, with Northern Ireland doing better than Scotland in maths and science, and Scotland outperforming Northern Ireland in reading.

The research also showed teenagers in the UK reported a high level of food poverty, with 11% of 15-year-olds skipping a meal at least once a week because of a lack of money.

‘Alarming’ rise in school pupil absence rates, says report

Where does Scotland stand with the attainment gap?
Pass rate falls as Scottish pupils get exam results
The Pisa research, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is just one way of comparing education systems in different countries.

The OECD reported an “unprecedented drop” in performance, on average, across the participating countries when comparing the 2022 study to 2018.

What is Pisa?

The Pisa initials stand for Programme for International Student Assessment, with pupils sitting the test asked to use their skills of reasoning, interpretation and problem solving – rather than simply remembering facts.

Nearly 700,000 students from 81 countries took part in the latest study, including 3,300 pupils across 117 schools in Scotland.

It was conducted last year, having been delayed by the Covid pandemic.

The questions in the research are designed to be “culturally neutral” so pupils in particular countries are not at an unfair advantage or disadvantage.

How did Scotland rate this time?

Scotland’s score in the 2022 Pisa assessment for reading was 493, down from 504 in 2018 and 526 in 2000 when the Pisa study started.

The reading performance was above the OECD average of 476 points and higher than 24 other countries.

Scotland’s reading score is ahead of Wales (466) and Northern Ireland (485) but behind England (496).

For maths, the score in 2022 was 471, which is just below the OECD average of 472 points.

However, Scotland’s score is down from 489 in 2018 and 491 in 2015.

This is ahead of Wales (466) but behind Northern Ireland (475) and England (492).

UK nation Pisa performance

In science, Scotland’s score was 483 points, below the 490 results in 2018 and 497 in 2015.

This is better than Wales (473) but behind Northern Ireland (488) and England (503).

The OECD said the student response rate in the UK was slightly below its target threshold for data quality but Andreas Schleicher, of the directorate of education and skills in the OECD, said this was “unlikely to lead to big distortions in the results — we do not indicate any measurable distortion.”

What is behind the drop in performance?

Mr Schleicher said that disruption caused by Covid “made a difference”, but should not be overplayed and that other issues such as parental support and the use of mobile phones need to be considered.

He said: “We can see that students’ use of smartphones was quite clearly linked in Scotland, but also in other countries, to greater student anxiety, to more disruption, to less concentration.

“Even many students in Scotland said ‘My neighbour is using their smartphone during a lesson and I can’t concentrate’.

“So clearly the use of technology for leisure may have played an equal role as the pandemic, but we can’t disentangle – we just see the overall results.”

Mr Schleicher added that the study also picked up on a decline in parental support and engagement in Scotland.
He said: “Schools can’t compensate for what parents don’t provide”.

Lindsay Paterson, professor emeritus of education policy at Edinburgh University, said the decline in Scottish performance in the Pisa study corresponds with the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence schools model.

He said: “The longer-term decline may be seen clearly for Scotland if we go back a full decade to 2012.

“2012 is around the time that the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence was beginning to impinge significantly on children’s learning.”

What’s the situation in the rest of the UK?

England is the highest-performing nation across all three disciplines.

Wales remained the lowest performing within the UK for all subjects, with Northern Ireland doing better than Scotland in maths and science, and Scotland outperforming Northern Ireland in reading.

In the UK as a whole, in maths and reading, all gains observed in the previous cycle in 2018 were reversed as the scores dropped from 502 to 489 and from 504 to 494 respectively.

The UK’s score in science confirmed a decade-long decline in performance, dropping to 500 in 2022 from 505 in 2018.

It found that 11% of 15-year-olds in the UK reported skipping a meal at least once a week because there was not enough money to buy food, compared to an OECD average of 8%.

What does the Scottish government say?

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth’s response to the study cites the impact of the Covid pandemic, which disrupted schooling for long periods, having a “profound impact on our young people and their experience of learning and teaching”.

She added: “Pisa demonstrates this impact across the majority of countries participating.

“Whilst every country in the UK has seen a reduction in its Pisa scores across maths and reading between 2018 and 2022, there will be key learning for the Scottish government and [council umbrella body] Cosla to address jointly in responding.

“Since the Pisa survey was conducted wider evidence, national exam pass rates and literacy and numeracy data for primary schools, show clear evidence of an ongoing recovery which we are determined to build on.”

There was a time when Scotland’s education system was the envy of the world.

As early as 1708, the writer Daniel Defoe praised Scottish schooling, writing that even the “poorest people have their children taught and instructed” in contrast to England’s “dark villages…full of ignorance.”

Fair or not, this reputation persisted well into the 20th century.

If the OECD’s latest work is taken at face value, then the Scottish education system is no longer a beacon of light.

Scotland’s performance in maths, science and reading has been on a downward trend for 15 years, according to the figures.

It remains close to the (declining) OECD average in maths and science. Reading was better but by no means exceptional, with Scotland hovering around the UK average.

The OECD does not drill down into the Scottish data but it does offer some interesting general observations:

Declining performance predates COVID-19, and some countries actually managed quite well during the pandemic, especially those which kept schools open for longer.

Teacher shortages imperil learning, and the UK is suffering from teacher shortages.

Mobile phones are often a damaging distraction for students.

Pupils need to feel safer and better supported by their teachers, while parents need to be more engaged in their children’s schooling.

Learning is hard when you are hungry, and the relatively high level of poverty-related hunger in the UK surprised the OECD.

Whether or not you regard this work as a fair overall measure of educational performance, the OECD’s observations leave plenty to debate and plenty to discuss.

Presentational grey line
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar acknowledged the impact of the Covid pandemic but said the decline in performance was the result of “16 years of SNP incompetence”.

Scottish Conservative education spokesperson Liam Kerr told BBC Scotland News: “These declining scores began long before Covid and they continued more severely during Covid than they have in the rest of the UK.

“So any attempt by the education secretary to pass this off or say it’s happening around all of the UK equally is simply not credible.”

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