Scotland’s pride in its educational excellence runs deep: one schools inspector boasted in 1872 that pupils of modest means in England needed “nothing short of genius” to reach university, but those in the hands of Scottish teachers could succeed with mere “useful ability, prudence and hard work”.
So the revelation this week that Scotland has slipped in the most important international ranking of pupils’ performance, scoring below England for English, maths and science, was a heavy blow to the governing Scottish National party.
On Thursday, Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, listed all the countries that now rank above Scotland in the OECD’s Pisa international education rankings, before slipping the knife in.
“Scotland used to have one of the best education systems in the world, now we have dropped behind all of those countries,” Mr Rennie said. “After 10 years of SNP rule, we are not even as good as England any more.”
For many looking for the cause of Scotland’s relative decline there is an obvious culprit: the nation’s new “curriculum for excellence”.
Drawn up under a previous administration but introduced under the SNP, the curriculum was supposed to transform learning by breaking down barriers between subjects and focusing on skills rather than mastery of a set body of knowledge.
It has broad support from politicians and educators, but some critics have dubbed it the “curriculum for excrement”, arguing that it has overwhelmed teachers, perplexed parents and left pupils poorly served.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh university, said learning traditional subjects might be more useful to modern pupils than the CfE’s “rather Mickey Mouse approach to cross-curricula themes”.
Others argue that the CfE’s principles of individual learning and teacher autonomy have been compromised by continuous assessment and increasingly complicated instructions on teaching content.
The Educational Institute of Scotland, the sector’s largest union, said the CfE is still the right approach but the curriculum’s implementation has been rushed and underfunded.
At the time of the Pisa tests, Scottish 15-year-olds were in the throes of curriculum upheaval and the fraught introduction of new exams, said Andrea Bradley, EIS assistant secretary.
But when the same cohort went on to take Scottish Highers exams, considered the gold standard for more able pupils, there was “no evidence of deterioration”.
She added that it would be wrong to judge a broad curriculum on the relatively narrow range of subjects in the Pisa tests, which do not assess, for example, how well pupils work in teams or how they fare at creative subjects.
Nevertheless, the fundamental importance of reading and maths, and supportive evidence of slipping standards in Scottish surveys, spells increasing pressure on the SNP to turn things round.
For generations, education has been what the historian Sir Tom Devine called “a badge of identity” for Scotland within the UK.
With roots in a precocious network of Protestant parish schools established in the 17th century, Scottish state education has long been held up as a distinctively national success that allowed a ploughman to become the national poet and talented poor pupils to prosper in the professions.
But Keir Bloomer, who chairs the think-tank led Commission on School Reform, says that with Scotland now ranking around the OECD average in the Pisa tests, its schools can no longer credibly be described as “world leading”.
“We are seeing the reality and it is deeply troubling,” Mr Bloomer said.
Nicola Sturgeon told parliament she would not make an excuses for the Pisa results. “They are not good enough,” she said, but insisted CfE was the right approach and her government’s plans for what it calls radical further reform of the system would bear fruit.
Yet many are unconvinced that SNP plans so far will be enough. Mr Bloomer welcomes indications the government wants greater autonomy for headteachers and more power for parents, which he says is associated with school success internationally.
But the details are still unclear and the EIS, which represents 2,000 headteachers and deputies, says many worry about the increased paperwork that more responsibility would bring. “They are drowning in bureaucracy as it is,” Ms Bradley says.
Teachers have welcomed Mr Swinney’s efforts to streamline the huge files of central guidance on the curriculum, but are less pleased by the SNP’s determination to reintroduce national standardised testing. While ministers hope tests will help them judge school performance, opponents say it will add a new burden on already-stretched staff.
Meanwhile, local authorities are stung by the SNP’s desire to bypass them with new funding to help pupils from deprived backgrounds and by the possible creation of new regional bodies to take over part of their education role.
The SNP’s school woes have given opponents of the party a major opportunity to refocus attention on its record in power. Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, accused the SNP of obsession with Scottish independence. “It has taken its eye completely off the ball when it comes to education,” Ms Smith said.
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