SOME PEOPLE might think ‘uncomfortable reading’ a rather understated reaction to Scotland’s performance in the 2015 Performance for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. The results were the poorest that Scotland has had in any international comparison of educational standards so far. In the first PISA study in 2000 Scotland scored well above average in all three of the subjects measured; reading, maths and science. Fifteen years later Scotland is rated average in all three.
It is important to recognise that these results are not an isolated phenomenon. Scotland was not performing well in two other international surveys. Standards as measured in PIRLS (a literacy survey) and TIMSS (which measures science and maths) were uninspiring and declining in the early 2000s. The government, however, took effective action. It withdrew us from the surveys, so now we don’t know.
Even more importantly, the government’s own measure of standards, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), has also highlighted a worrying trend. Attainment in literacy declined between 2012 and 2014 when the last survey took place, and in numeracy across three surveys from 2011 to 2015. Furthermore, SSLN suggests strongly that schools are having little success in ‘closing the gap’ between disadvantaged and other learners. The survey tests young people at three stages, P4, P7 and S2. In the 2014 literacy survey the gap was twice as great in S2 as in P4. Matters were worse still in the 2015 numeracy survey; the gap had much more than doubled.
Unlike PISA, which compares performance among different countries, SSLN measures standards against expected norms. PISA suggests that many other countries are making progress much faster than Scotland while SSLN suggests that, in key curricular areas, performance may actually be getting worse.
Clearly, something has gone seriously wrong. An obvious source of potential difficulties is Curriculum for Excellence. After all, it has been the biggest programme of change in Scotland over the period of decline.
The implementation of Curriculum for Excellence has obviously been the cause of numerous problems. The most public of these has been the unnecessary complexity and the level of teacher workload associated with the introduction of the new National Qualifications. This is a mistake Scotland has made twice before. The introductions of Standard Grade and Higher Still were hampered by complaints about workload arising from over-complicated assessment. Why don’t we learn? Moreover there is an irony in the fact that Curriculum for Excellence was designed, among other things, to ‘declutter’ the curriculum, freeing up time for deeper learning. Instead, it ensured that time was consumed by excessive amounts of assessment.
There is, however, a deeper error in relation to the new examinations. Why were they introduced so early in the programme at all? The decision to make examination change an earlier priority has meant that secondary schools devoted most of their energy to preparing for the new qualifications. Work was focused on the later years (S4-6) despite the fact that these stages had been operating quite effectively before.
In contrast, little time was spent on the early years of secondary education despite the fact that when the Curriculum Review Group was writing the original Curriculum for Excellence policy statement during 2003 and 2004 it found that S1 and S2 constituted the least satisfactory period during the whole of primary and secondary education. In short, effort was concentrated where it was least needed and the period with greatest problems was neglected.
The difficulties arising out of the decision to introduce new examinations were substantial but appear insignificant when compared with the problems created by the curricular and pedagogical advice intended to help teachers take forward the minimum implementation programme. Over 20,000 pages have been allowed to accumulate. The guidance they contain comprises 4 capacities, 12 attributes, 24 capabilities, 5 levels, 7 principles, 6 entitlements, 10 aims, 8 curricular areas, 3 interdisciplinary areas, 4 contexts for learning and 1,820 experiences and outcomes that are now being simplified and clarified by the issue of new benchmarks occupying 600 pages.
Furthermore, there is little evidence of planning underpinning the guidance. Thus, one paper in the key Building the Curriculum series deals with subject-based learning, with which every teacher is familiar, while there is no paper on interdisciplinary learning, which is a key feature of Curriculum for Excellence and about which teachers were much less well-informed. Worse still, it is flaws in the guidance that led to the controversy over the maximum number of examination subjects a learner could study in S4. In a number of local authority areas pupils were limited to six (or even five) subjects compared with the previous norm of eight. Thus, a measure designed to broaden the curriculum ended up narrowing it. Astonishingly, those managing the programme seemed unconcerned and only public protest led to a partial reversal of the guidance.
The last few paragraphs barely scrape the surface. The implementation of Curriculum for Excellence is a catalogue of errors, transforming a visionary idea into a mismanaged shambles. The concept remains first class but steps have to be taken urgently to rescue teachers and pupils from the consequences of mistakes made in putting it into practice.
It is certain that the problems with Curriculum for Excellence have contributed greatly to the decline of Scottish education but they are not the whole story. So, what else has gone wrong? PISA offers some clues. Its tests measure performance at a range of levels of difficulty. At the higher end, it is not concerned with factual recall but with demonstrating understanding, analysis and problem solving. Just the kind of qualities that Curriculum for Excellence was designed to promote. Yet the proportion of Scottish pupils performing well at the higher levels is low.
In an interesting article in the Sunday Times (11.12.16), Lindsay Paterson approaches the same issue from a different angle. By comparing recent Higher exam questions with questions on similar topics from thirty years ago, he shows that the older questions required pupils to show a greater depth of knowledge and deeper levels of understanding. In other words, some of the rigour has gone out of Scottish education. This is the case both at the basic level of learning number facts and at the much more sophisticated level described by Professor Paterson.
Scottish teachers are as good as they ever were. Indeed, the opportunities for professional development and, therefore, learning throughout a career have never been better. It looks as if the lack of ambition of the curriculum and the low expectations placed on learners, combined with system-level mismanagement, have depressed standards.
The government’s Delivery Plan contains many sensible proposals – arguably too many of them – but there has yet to be a recognition that the culture of the system needs to become much more aspirational and that the way the system is run, especially at middle and national levels, needs to be dramatically improved.
Where should we start? The working of the national agencies must be reviewed. They need to serve the needs of teachers as teachers actually perceive them. In other words they must cease being part of the problem and become part of the solution.
Scotland needs an effective change process with national government being concerned with limited, genuinely strategic policy-making and operational decisions left as far as possible in the hands of schools. The government’s review of governance is quite right on this point. Let us hope there is the courage to bring about the changes needed.
Future policy must be based on evidence. Government has a tendency to ignore inconvenient signals until it is too late. It is not true, as has recently been claimed, that the evidence of decline was not there until 2015 and then effective action was taken immediately. The decline has been apparent since the 2003 PISA study and other international comparisons around that time. In the same way SSLN has been giving bad news since 2011 but it is not apparent that it triggered remedial action. The defensiveness and self-congratulation must go. Honest admission that we have a problem would be a good start. Statements made last week suggest we may be getting there.