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Chris McGovern: Global test results give the lie to SNP boasts of school excellence


Public exam results in Scotland – Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers – have just been published. The SNP government has been quick to claim credit for what it sees as a triumphant vindication of how it runs education north of the border.

The pass rate, broadly in line with last year, remains at an historic high and a record number of Scottish youngsters have gained university places. “The whole country should rightly be proud of the excellence and achievement in Scottish education demonstrated by these results,” boasted the euphoric Education Secretary, John Swinney.

These days anything short of a celebration of exam results is seen as undermining and belittling the effort made by young people. Questioning the value of the examination currency is regarded as a criticism of the candidates. Akin to a form of treason against the Scottish nation, it has become a ‘no-go’ area for politicians. It came as no surprise, therefore, that opposition parties, too, showered their praise on the pupils.

Scotland’s educational Establishment outguns even England’s when it comes to power and authority. In social and educational terms, it is the ‘provisional wing’ of the SNP and its influence and ideas extend across the UK. Following this latest exam ‘success’ story the pro-Corbyn Canary website chirped in that “Scotland is leading the way in education,” while “England’s education system is failing a generation of children,” because it continues with national testing.

The notion that if English schools could be like Scottish schools all would be well for its pupils is as seductive as it is misguided. True, there was a time, not so long ago, when there was much to admire about the education on offer in Scotland. When the SNP achieved power a decade ago, Scottish pupils were performing better than the UK overall according to the international OECD PISA tests for 15-year-olds. While these tests are far from being infallible they have, since 2011, become the only international assessment allowed by the SNP government. The triennial PISA is the chosen litmus test of standards in Scottish schools.

The PISA results since the SNP came to power in Scotland, however, indicate declining attainment that is much at variance with the rosy picture painted by the recent public examination results. Indeed, matters could scarcely be worse.

The latest scores (2015) indicate that standards in Scottish schools have fallen from well above the UK average in literacy and numeracy to below average. In science, before the SNP took over, Scottish pupils used to perform at the level of the rest of the UK but have now slumped to well below that level.

The background context for Scotland’s declining performance is, of course, that the UK as a whole sits in mid-table mediocrity in the PISA tables, up to three years behind the front-runners. Matters may be even worse than they appear. Evidence that the BBC was confronted by in South Korea suggests that the PISA tests significantly underestimate the attainment gap between the UK and the best education systems around the world.

Scottish government data – the Survey of Literacy and Numeracy – has confirmed the decline in pupil performance since the introduction of Scotland’s so-called “Curriculum for Excellence” in 2010. In May of this year the Scottish education secretary had to acknowledge the facts and admit that standards are “simply not good enough.”

Sadly, the celebrations around this week’s examination results need to be tempered by a sense of reality. In educational terms, the SNP’s self-congratulation is tainted by its betrayal of a generation. The last thing that Scotland needs now is an educational standards ‘cover-up’ based on its public exam results.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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