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by Margaret Taylor
16 November 2023
Warning over fall in Scottish educational standards

The OECD's Pisa report will be published next month | Alamy

Warning over fall in Scottish educational standards

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned that an imminent report into educational attainment is likely to show a further decline in standards among Scottish pupils.

In a report published today, the economic research institute highlights that Scottish pupils did better at maths and science than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK between 2006 and 2012, scoring "well above average" in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests – a globally recognised standard – and consistently coming top of the four UK nations in maths and reading.

However, since 2006 there has been a gradual decline in Scotland’s maths and science scores, with the IFS warning that Pisa data for 2022, which will be published in December, could show a further drop as well as a widening in educational inequalities.

IFS research economist Andrew McKendrick, who co-authored the IFS paper, said: "The performance of Scottish pupils in international Pisa tests has been disappointing, particularly in maths and science. Scotland has gone from a position of high performer to an average performer.

"The gap between rich and poor is slightly narrower than in England, but only because richer Scottish pupils score lower than their English counterparts.

"Large increases in spending and big reforms, such as the Curriculum for Excellence, do not seem to have translated into higher performance in these core subjects, though Scottish pupils did perform very well in a test of global competence, which may be measuring the impact of the new curriculum.

"New PISA data will be published next month. This will allow us to see whether Scotland’s declining trend has continued over time, and whether the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a further widening of inequalities."

The Pisa report, which is published every three years, tests 15-year-old students from all over the world in reading, maths and science to gauge how well they have mastered the subjects.

In the 2019 report, Scotland achieved its lowest scores in maths and science since first taking part in the survey almost 20 years previously. Reading scores, meanwhile, remained more stable over time, with Scottish pupils faring better than the OECD average.

Historical data also showed wide gaps in test scores between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds in Scotland, with the biggest gap being in science. In maths, the gap is equivalent to that between the UK as a whole and Kazakhstan or Romania.

Despite the gap, better-off pupils in Scotland underperform their counterparts in England while students from disadvantaged backgrounds show similar levels of low performance.

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Pam Duncan-Glancy said the report "exposes the damage the SNP has done to Scotland’s once world-class education system".

"The SNP has presided over falling standards and a stubbornly wide attainment gap," she said. "Their inaction on reform in education has left Scotland lagging behind.

"The SNP must act now to reverse this decline and build an education system that gives every child the opportunities they deserve and the best possible start in life."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "The data in this report is now five years old and predates the pandemic. This year’s exam results showed the overall pass rate for National 5, Highers and Advanced Highers is up from the pre-pandemic level, including increases in the pass rates for Higher maths, biology, chemistry and physics.

"We have recently seen the biggest ever reduction in the attainment gap on literacy and numeracy in primary schools in a single year and we are seeing record proportions of school leavers going on to positive destinations including work, training or further study.

"Scotland has the most teachers-per-pupil compared to the rest of the UK, and education spend per person is higher than England and Wales."

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