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.

Chris McGovern

  • Phil R

    My friend who has taught maths and physics in Hong Kong for 20 years, states that a HK 15 year old takes Maths exams which would tax our A level students.

    HK “A levels”are at a standard that our Maths graduates would find hard.

    Interesting, he does not think that the Chinese are inherently brighter. He just considers that they are better taught especially in primary schools and have a far better work ethic.

    He often says that HK students go to school to learn, not to be entertained.

    Also bad behaviour is dealt with rather than tollerated.

    Teachers are expected to teach rather than spend their evenings on management driven, back watching paperwork, for no other purpose than to please OFSTED

    • Bik Byro

      I have no problem at all believing your first paragraph having seen the GCSE and A level syllabus in this country.

      I’d like to hold out hope that the second paragraph is still not true. Despite many other university courses being ‘Mickey Mouse’, mathematics certainly was (the last time I had any brush with it was about 10 years ago) still taught –
      at least at a decent university – to a very high level involving longer tuition and more coursework way above nearly any other subject.

      As for the last paragraph though, that seems totally believable as well. Secondary education in this country is letting down a generation.

      • Phil R

        Secondary education in this country is letting down a generation.

        Two generations at least. I think primary schools are also an issue. Most do not have teachers who were themselves confident with maths. They project their own lack of confidence onto the pupilshave low expectationd and do not understand how to expand the thinking beyond basic arithmetic, which is often all they are confident with.

        • Judging by here (which may or may not be reasonable) the primary schools are the problem. If you’re not teaching the basics there, everybody later on the chain has to make up for it, and where does that time come from.

  • martianonlooker

    Why? Why? Why did you have to ruin my summer? There I was, content with the silence from the Napoleon of the North. Now you have ruined it. Isn’t, the real Napoleon’s house (as opposed to our tartan Napoleon) on St Helena empty? Couldn’t we banish her and her Grand (tartan) Armee there? Is the wallpaper still impregnated with arsenic?

  • Andrew Tettenborn

    Challenge to the Scottish educational Panglosses: how many Scottish state schools prepare for the International Baccalaureate, which isn’t manipulable by Sturgeon and her quangocrats? Not many, I fancy.

  • UKCitizen

    The Scots are a canny bunch. They had a brush with nationalism and looked down the maw of a socialist state and didn’t like what they saw if the last election results were anything to go by.
    Widow twankies days are numbered.

  • Some thirty years ago when a works colleague of mine was posted to Scotland, he discovered that his teenage children were about a year behind the Scottish children in their education and had to have extra tuition to catch up. I doubt if that would be the same now; every indication suggests it is the other way round.

  • Sheik Rhat el Anrhol

    It looks to me that Sturgeon truly believed that her Reich would last a thousand years but it is crumbling.

    I see panic and fear in her face but it is too late.