The Programme for International Student Assessment—always referred to as PISA—is the most rigorous form of international comparative research on school education that is available. It has been run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development since the turn of the century. Under the leadership of Dr Andreas Schleicher, it has sought to use reliable statistical measurement to understand what 15-year-olds know and can do.
Every three years, it measures their attainment in mathematics, reading and science, and collects a wide range of background information that might help to explain how that attainment is distributed across social groups, and how it is changing over time. Fully 81 countries took part in the 2022 round (which was postponed for a year because of Covid), giving a total sample of nearly 700,000 students.
The headline figures were released this week. Across the world, attainment has declined since the previous wave in 2018. The most obvious reason is the disruption caused by Covid, but Dr Schleicher points out that this is not the only explanation. There was only a weak relationship between a country’s average attainment and the extent of school closures during Covid. Each country has its own particular reasons for change, and indeed some actually improved. Notable examples are Japan and Korea in all three domains, Singapore, Philippines, Italy and Israel in two of the three, and many in one of the three, notably Ireland and Australia in science.
Scotland is worse than England across a range of attainments
All parts of the UK declined, not just Scotland, and in that sense Scottish education policy might be thought to be excused responsibility. But the decline here was greater than in England, despite the similar experience of Covid. Moreover, Scottish attainment has been quite steadily falling at least since 2012, in contrast to England until Covid, where attainment in mathematics and reading was rising, and the decline in science was much more gentle than in Scotland. That tends to discredit another potential explanation that would attribute educational difficulties to the rise of the cost of living. England has experienced this in much the same was as Scotland.
The changes in Scottish attainment between 2018 and 2022 were more negative than in three quarters of countries in mathematics and science and than two thirds of countries in reading. Between 2012 and 2022, the average Scottish decline has been equivalent to the loss of 8 months of schooling in reading, 16 months in mathematics, and 18 months in science.
Matters for Scotland are even more dismaying than that. Scotland is now worse than England across the range of attainment, but the deficit among high attainers was particularly marked in mathematics and science. For example, in mathematics, there was a 14-point gap between Scotland and England in scores among the lowest 10% of attainers, but a 22-point gap in the top 10%. In science, the corresponding differences were 12 and 23. In reading there was little difference in 2022, but that contrasts to the situation in 2012, where Scotland was 24-points ahead of the rest of the UK for the lowest 10%. Scottish education is not serving its most able students very well.
Is the Scottish curriculum at fault?
Social inequality has grown in Scotland, and is now worse than in England, despite much political rhetoric in Scotland about reducing inequality. The PISA studies measure inequality by an index of economic, social and cultural capital. A common way of summarising inequality is to divide this index into four quarters, and compare the average attainment in each.
In all three domains, Scottish inequality has grown since 2012. In reading, it went from 78 points in 2012 to 93 in 2022. In mathematics, it grew from 85 to 103. In science, the growth was from 82 to 96. In 2022, this inequality was greater in Scotland than in England in mathematics and reading, and the same in science.
If neither Covid nor difficult economic conditions can explain the unique aspects of these Scottish results, and if the unique policy attention in Scotland to mitigating the effects of economic inequality has yielded the very opposite, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Scottish curriculum is at fault. The so-called Curriculum for Excellence was officially inaugurated in 2010. The first PISA sample to have had any experience of it was in 2012. The 2022 sample was the first group to have had that curriculum throughout its schooling.
This curriculum has commendable aims. It tries to prepare students for life—work, families, citizenship. It takes students’ attitudes to their learning seriously. But it also neglects systematic knowledge, and its progenitors regarded that kind of structured learning as harmful to students’ progress. Yet assessing students’ applied skills is precisely what the PISA tests are intended to do. In other parts of the PISA questionnaires, students are asked about their attitudes to learning, and Scotland comes out no better than England: for example, 47% in both countries felt “confident or very confident” in “motivating myself to do school work”.
The challenge for England and Scotland is to combine the noble aims of each
On the other hand, in the same period—and for more than two decades—English policy on the school curriculum has taken quite a different direction. It has focused much more strongly on knowledge, following research which shows that knowledge is empowering. This is especially true of students who cannot get access to knowledge from home, because their parents have not themselves had access to it, or because they cannot afford the kind of equipment and experiences—books, computers, educational activities—that underpin the acquisition of it. This English approach has been criticised for being harsh, and for being too abstract—the very characteristics that Scotland’s curriculum rejects. After all, the evidence on student motivation can be read the other way round: England is no better than Scotland at improving it.
The PISA evidence thus suggests—though it does not prove—that the Scottish approach to the curriculum is less effective than the English. The next challenge for policy-makers in both countries is to try to combine the noble aims of each—an attention to skills and well-being, but also recognising that skills, to be effective, have to be grounded in knowledge, and that educational well-being can come from the satisfaction of grasping a difficult body of knowledge. Yet in the polarised world of educational politics, it is difficult to hold out much hope that a reconciliation of this kind might be achieved.