And as the political temperature rises, Scotland’s education performance is being used as ammunition against the SNP government. Theresa May accused Nicola Sturgeon of “neglect and mismanagement” of education when responding to the call for an independence referendum. The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, said at her party conference earlier this month that the SNP’s record on education was “an absolute disgrace” and “a mark of shame” and promised a “back to basics review” of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Questioned at Holyrood last week about May’s attack, Sturgeon said merely: “The education secretary and I work to raise standards and close the attainment gap in our schools every single day.”
Introduced in 2010, the CfE was intended to free children from over-testing, and to allow teachers to tailor classes to their pupils’ needs and interests. It created a “broad general education”, leading to a senior phase of qualifications-gathering at ages 15 to 18.
But controversy has dogged the reform. The latest round of the OECD’s Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tables showed science results for Scottish pupils had fallen from a score of 513 in 2012 to 497 in 2016 – below the international average. England scored 512 in 2016 but the UK score was 509. Reading and maths in Scotland declined, too, although they were inside the statistical average category. The former Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, complained that Scotland and Wales (science score 485) were dragging the UK scores down.
PM Theresa May with Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA
In February 2017, the Sutton Trust reported an analysis of the Pisa figures for the most able 10% in the UK and found that the performance of the most able children in Scotland in science dropped by the equivalent of a year’s education between 2006 and 2015, mostly due to falling scores from better-off pupils. England’s scores for able pupils from both high and low socio-economic backgrounds topped the UK and were among the best in the world.
John Swinney, Scotland’s education minister, admitted the results made uncomfortable reading but argued that only by persisting with the reforms under way could Scotland’s education become world class again. In fact, curriculum reforms were already being put in place in response to an OECD report commissioned by the Scottish government. These reforms, which brought in more assessment, led to industrial action by teaching unions over teachers’ workload, and are under further review.
Currie community high school had results slightly below the average for Edinburgh, but achieved highly when indices of social deprivation were used. In particular, its top performers did significantly better than the average for the city, and many go into science careers. The refurbished 1960s building is situated in the centre of a neat housing estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Pupils gathered in the science lab all said they enjoyed the flexibility of their curriculum, which involves practical work with lots of experiments, collaborative, cross-disciplinary modules, and in the senior phase a requirement for students to undertake independent investigations.
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Ellen Wilkinson, 14, was an environmental manager in a recent project on carbon capture, while her classmates took the roles of geologists, climate scientists and transport engineers. “I looked at what would happen to the sea life if the carbon started to escape. It was really interesting,” she says. Science teacher Irene Somerville explains: “They worked collaboratively, using all three sciences: the physics of transporting carbon, the chemistry of the carbon, the biology of the potential environmental effects. They are considering how to use science in real situations and that’s how we create the best scientists.”
For Somerville, the new curriculum is finally starting to make sense after a steep learning curve. “At this school we think about Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths], not just science,” she says. “We have students going on to apprenticeships and college courses as well as university. We are producing mechanics and technicians, and people who study medicine and engineering.” The workload involved in moving to a new way of working has been “massive” for teachers. “There are so many brilliant teachers across Scotland trying to do the best they can for the children in their classrooms.” They need resources and “a period of stability”.
David Kong, 17, is enjoying investigating the polarisation of light, using equipment at Heriot-Watt University. “This could be the sort of thing the English students lack: the opportunity to pursue their own interests and explore ideas instead of just working to an exam. For our advanced highers we have to do quite a big piece of independent investigation and write it up.”
Teacher Findlay Haddow with a pupil at Currie community high school, Edinburgh.
Teacher Findlay Haddow with a pupil at Currie community high school, Edinburgh. Photograph: Martin Hunter for the Guardian
Curriculum expert Prof Mark Priestley of the University of Stirling wrote in his blog that the dip relative to England was particularly “difficult to stomach”.
He argues that Pisa should not be dismissed: “We have made mistakes.” Not enough emphasis is placed on knowledge, he says. “Knowledge and skills go together. We downplayed knowledge and we didn’t set it up so that teachers were being encouraged to ask questions, like ‘what knowledge is important here?’.” Badly handled, he feels, the curriculum could lead to a fragmented and incoherent experience. However, the CfE, though flawed, is “headed in the right direction”.
Priestley argues that the teaching profession was effectively de-skilled by the previous generation of prescriptive “teacher-proof” curriculums. Scotland’s teachers need more support and professional development, he says. “We are still coming across teachers who say they don’t understand the CfE, who say they are confused about what’s expected of them or, worse still, they say ‘just tell me what to teach’.”
Educational consultant David Cameron, who works throughout the UK, says: “Teachers are under a lot of pressure; they know there is going to be scrutiny and they don’t want to get it wrong.” He remarked that in his experience there is good and bad teaching on either side of the border, regardless of the curriculum.
Cameron argues that turning education into “a political brickbat”, as is happening in Scotland, is not likely to be helpful. “Pisa is an average score of a random sample on a given day. I don’t think it’s a good basis for trite generalisations about a country’s performance. Some schools do well at Pisa and some do badly. We should look at those differences between schools more closely and see what we can learn.”
Andrea Bradley, of the Educational Institute for Scotland, says the union supports the CfE, seeing it as a way of moving away from “league tables and endless testing, which was detrimental to children’s experience of education”.
She says countries that, like Scotland, are determined to move towards a more “holistic” approach have to be prepared to “take the hit” on losing out on rankings that focus on a narrow set of skills. The EIS wants to see teachers’ contact hours reduced.
“Scottish teachers have almost the highest number of contact hours in the world,” Bradley says. “We want them to have time to develop the curriculum, both as individuals and in collaboration.”