Talking point: Scottish education is far from the best in the world, if it ever was
It’s an oft-repeated myth that Scottish education is among the best in the world. And like most myths, it’s difficult to trace its origins. While it’s nice to pat ourselves on the back, believing that everyone is looking on enviously at our fantastic school system, I’m not sure when, or even if, that has ever been true. The first half of the twentieth century? The Enlightenment? Certainly, I have seen no evidence of that excellence during my lifetime.
I was among the first few years to sit Standard Grades, which were a dumbing down of O-Grades, introducing a turn up and you’ll pass culture. They were meant to be inclusive, but actually brought in lower expectations, a lack of challenge for more able pupils and created a huge gap in progressing to Highers, which were still demanding.
I was, therefore, struck the other day, reading comments from Professor Lindsay Paterson from 2017, forecasting then that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) could be “disastrous” because it lacked “academic rigour” and was “dumbing down” education. If Paterson considered CfE to be dumbing down on Standard Grades, it must be dumb indeed.
Instead of subject knowledge, CfE focuses on personal attributes, to create confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens and effective contributors. No bad things in themselves, but it’s questionable to what extent someone can be considered a successful learner if they lack a decent education in core subjects such as English, maths, the sciences, languages, history and geography, as well as developing imagination and expertise in technical and creative subjects.
We used to compare Scottish education favourably with English education but pupils in England are sitting 9-11 GCSEs compared to only five or six Nationals in many schools here. By international standards the Scottish curriculum is very narrow.
And CfE is failing even on its own terms, with criticism from examiners of pupils’ recent poor performance in Highers uncovered by The Times including a lack of critical thinking, generic answers and disappointing conclusions, suggesting all is not well with those transferable skills and there is an issue with teaching to the test and memorising answers rather than achieving an actual understanding of the subject.
Leaving aside the falling Higher pass rates, the fact that the average pass rate for Highers is around 75 per cent suggests that a quarter of those put forward for Highers may not have been suited to doing that subject at that level. You don’t expect everyone to pass, but if pupils are sitting an appropriate qualification that they are capable of, most should achieve an A-C pass grade. This suggests pupils are being pushed through that route inappropriately.
CfE was also supposed to bring parity of esteem between a range of different qualifications, both academic and vocational, but there is no sign of that, with the First Minister still referring to five Highers as the ‘gold standard’ and the proportion of pupils from poorer backgrounds going on to university often cited in relation to closing the attainment gap. Where, then, is the idea that going on to college or an apprenticeship is of equal value?
Scotland will have a successful education system when all pupils get a broad and effective education in the general stage, which should cover the entire compulsory schooling period up to S4, followed by a range of equally respected academic and vocational post-16 options that are centred on the ambitions and abilities of the individual pupil rather than bumping up figures.