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What a PISA Nonsense

Nicola Biggerstaff

This week saw the release of the 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, the first set since the pandemic. It shows a downward trend in academic achievement across schools globally, and Scotland is no exception.

Ran by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since 2000, it assesses a random sample of fifteen year old students from each participating country in mathematics, science, and reading. This latest assessment is the eighth since its inception, and the first since the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw previously unprecedented disruption to education, taking many forms around the world. In Scotland and the UK, this involved the examination and assessment framework becoming almost entirely coursework based for academic years 2019-20 and 2020-21.

A downward trend in performance is therefore not entirely unexpected. We’ve commented extensively previously on how the continuous disruption to education has had a tremendous impact on pupil’s performance, mental health, and behaviour.

In Scotland, 3,257 pupils across 117 schools took part in the survey. Our results showed a drop in reading score from 504 in 2018 to 493 last year, itself a drop from our highest score of 526 in the study’s first year. In maths, Scotland dropped from 489 to 471, just one point below the OECD average of 472. In science, Scotland dropped from 490 points to 483.

Comparatively across the UK, Scotland performed better than Wales but fell behind England and Northern Ireland in maths and science, but was secondary only to England with reading scores. This is also on par with previous years where England has generally performed better than the other three nations.

While there are some drawbacks to the random sampling method, the biggest being the failure to paint an accurate picture of educational attainment across all ages in all academic areas, it does allow for a level assessment across nations where minimal standards for sampling have been met.

Outside the quantitative data, surveys of pupils were also conducted regarding their health and wellbeing and socioeconomic circumstances, including ‘students’ attitudes, dispositions and beliefs, their homes, and their school and learning environment’. It found that in Scotland, two thirds (67%) of school pupils feel like they belong at their school, lower than the OECD average of just under 75%, but higher than in 2018 at just under 65%. It also reports a decline in rates of bullying since 2018, but this also still sits higher than the OECD average. Almost 22% reported skipping a full day of schooling in the two weeks before the assessment, higher than both in 2018 (16.8%) and the 2022 average (14.6%).

Most damningly, the survey reported a high level of food poverty nationwide, with 11% of UK pupils skipping at least one meal per week due to financial issues. Other findings include the negative impact of teacher shortages on learning, and that pupils are in desperate need of more support.

The ignorance of our government in still trying to claim that our education is world-leading is becoming a farce at this point. Every year they claim the SQA exam results are a win, that they have been, in recent years, a testament to the country’s Covid recovery. But we cannot claim to be improving when the facts show just how average we are, or worse. We can’t even stand out among the 81 participating PISA nations, or take any progressive steps towards the improvements necessary to set this in motion.

According to Lindsay Paterson, professor emeritus of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, when asked by the BBC, the longer term decline of standards can be traced back to as far as 2012, which he notes was the time at which the Curriculum for Excellence was “beginning to impinge significantly on children’s learning”.

Also according to the BBC, even a representative of the directorate of education and skills at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, said that the impact of Covid should not be ‘overplayed’ and that other factors, including access to smart phones, contributed to increasing levels of anxiety which affect performance.

Both Humza Yousaf and Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth have said these results are “not good enough”, with the latter continually citing the OECD’s comments on the impact of the pandemic, and will promise to work with local authorities and their representatives, including COSLA, to deliver improvements in her address to parliament next week.

Overall, this is a damning indictment of both our country’s education system and our standard of living, and we cannot keep using Covid recovery as a smokescreen for this. We must at some point take responsibility, admit this country is failing its young people both in both education and wider community support. This is a generation which will be left behind if we do not act now.

As Robin wrote last week, we need to start taking a caring approach to education. Only by addressing the core issues which affect living standards: poverty, housing, food security and healthcare, can we even begin to address the mounting problems and underperformance in our schools, namely the reassessment of CfE, and create an education model which actually educates, inspires, and improves prospects, and not settle for one which just pretends to for the sake of spin.

5 thoughts on “What a PISA Nonsense”

  1. The comparison between Scotland and England should give us most cause for concern. English education has been under the control of Tory governments since 2010 and spending per pupil on education is lower than enjoyed in Scotland. Despite this, PISA shows that England is outperforming Scotland on all measures. Can we blame Covid?…no, since England was more adversely affected by Covid than Scotland. Can we blame poverty rate?…no, more is done in Scotland to tackle poverty than south of the border and the proportion of children living in poverty is therefore lower. Lack of teachers?…no, Scotland has a better pupil/teacher ratio than in England and qualification standards to teach in Scotland are higher than in England. The only conclusion is than what Scotland is doing in schools and how it is doing it is not as effective than south of the border. Time for some honesty….

    1. My only caveat to your comment is that the number of schools/pupils taking part in England was below the standard and is therefore likely to have resulted in higher results than is perhaps the reality. Doesn’t change the facts though, there is a downward trend in Scottish schools and someone needs to be brave enough to honestly review CforE and do something.

  2. florian albert

    Nicola Biggerstaff’s analysis does not get to the heart of the failure of Curriculum for Excellence, specifically that It prioritises skills over factual knowledge; a point that Professor Lindsay Paterson has been preaching for years. The cost of this approach is outlined in an article in today’s Observer – hardly a bastion of conservative thinking – by Sonia Sodha. She describes this failure as being due to ‘an entirely false but faddish dichotomy between knowledge and skills’ which has led to ‘declining educational standards where it has been adopted.’
    The failure of CfE, as it was being implemented, was ignored by the educational establishment and nearly all the press.
    The honourable exception to this was the Sunday Post, which exposed its inadequacies, to the great annoyance of Michael Russell, then Education Secretary.
    This is a disaster for ‘progressive Scotland.’ CfE was, for ‘progressive Scotland’, the country at its innovative best. It was implemented with the enthusiastic support of the main teachers’ union, the EIS, In reality, where Scotland had near total autonomy, it blundered horribly and – depressingly – still fails to accept that any mistake had been made.
    Andreas Schleicher, quoted above, has said that your schools today, show you your society tomorrow. Our future society will be one where a significant section of the population has been cheated of a proper schooling.

    1. Good points well made. The problem we face is that those responsible for the move from knowledge to skills will never admit they were wrong, even it they could be convinced by the evidence, since their careers have been built on pushing these ideas. Politically, CfE was introduced by the Labour/ Lib Dem coalition prior to 2007 and carried forward enthusiastically by the SNP from 2007 onwards. Only the Conservatives can claim clean hands on this one. The EIS teacher’s union, which is dominated by the primary sector, fully supports CfE. The SSTA which only represents secondary teachers, has always expressed doubt about CfE as their members are more aware of how inadequately prepared for secondary education so many new S1 pupils are after 7 years schooling. Something is seriously amiss but the establishment wishes to the spin the line that things are getting better when the real evidence shows the opposite. (I say real evidence since SQA results can not be used as a benchmark for standards since pass marks are set – usually lowered- each year, for each qualification, to get the percentage pass rate that is desired – usually a small increase over the previous year).

  3. Shouldn’t we be looking at the destinations of all school leavers over a period of time? Many parents see no intrinsic value to secondary education as there are so few quality jobs around and those that are very often poorly paid.
    We need to find out what teenagers act want from life nowadays a sit has certainly changed since I was at school. It is very difficult to get on the housing ladder, the quality of jobs out there are not of the highest and what are the prospects after being there a couple of years? Most will move around their industry for a variety of reasons, money only being one incentive and many will change career one, two or even three times, retraining along the way. So let’s at least teach our kids in how to be resilient and give them all some business training as well.

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