Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Critique of the OECD report into Scotland’s school curriculum – Lindsay Paterson

The report on Scotland’s school curriculum by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is likely to shape Scottish education policy for several years. Much delayed because of Covid, its eventual publication in June was acclaimed by almost all commentators. The Scottish government were satisfied with the OECD’s praise of ‘Curriculum for Excellence’, the policy that has been shaping the school curriculum for a decade and a half. The other political parties commended the report’s calls for greater clarity of purpose, for better evidence, and for less complicated relationships between the schools and the myriad of national and regional agencies through which curriculum policy is governed. The teachers’ trade unions were pleased with the report’s recognition that teachers have been drowning in an avalanche of centrally imposed instructions. Most of the news media welcomed the recommendation for clearer lines of accountability.

Yet the report itself is superficial, badly presented, based on questionable evidence, and uninformed by the most up-to-date psychological and neuro-scientific research on how children learn. An analysis published by Reform Scotland goes through these weaknesses in detail. This blog picks out the main points of the critique.

Partial evidence
The report says that the authors spoke to ‘representatives of over 40 organisations, education researchers and stakeholder committees’. They did. But these interlocutors all had to be approved by the Scottish government’s gatekeeper. Thus the result is not an independent report. It is largely a distillation of how the existing governing agencies see the problems. Almost all the people and organisations that the OECD consulted are insiders, in the sense that they sit on Scottish government committees, or are responsible for administering Scottish government grants. A majority of them in fact sit on the committee which manages Curriculum for Excellence itself.

The OECD was right to meet these people and organisations, and right to listen carefully to their views. These are all experts, with admirable experience of education and its management. The problem is, rather, with the omission of almost all points of view that might have provided the OECD with a more critical perspective. Dissenting opinions were barely present, an omission that has given the misleading impression in the OECD’s report that Curriculum for Excellence commands universal support.

One source of different views was schools. The OECD did visit (online) six schools, and consulted teachers and head-teachers in about a dozen others. Again, though, the problem is not in the schools that were consulted, but in those that were absent. The schools seem not to have been chosen in any scientifically representative way. There were no Catholic schools, and no independent schools. The schools under-represented the experience of poverty except in Glasgow, which is regrettable even though looking at Glasgow is indeed important. There was very little from the rest of central Scotland, and hardly anything on poverty in towns and cities outside that area. The quite different experience of rural poverty was almost entirely absent. Understanding how to close the poverty-related attainment gap is hardly possible on such a limited basis.

Partial reporting
So the report’s basis of evidence was limited. In one respect, this was the OECD’s fault: it should have insisted to the Scottish government on getting a greater diversity of points of view. But in another sense the gaps are not its fault at all, because normally an inquiry of this kind could have relied on statistical surveys conducted by the system itself. Yet successive Scottish governments since devolution have abolished almost all reliable sources of survey evidence on Scottish education. The report makes no comment on the loss. Its authors also seem unaware that the statistics with which it was provided by the Scottish government are of dubious quality. For example, the measurement of poverty used by the Scottish government is very inadequate. The evidence on whether the attainment gap is closing is based on opinions, not facts about pupils’ attainment.

The report’s authors don’t help clarity by tendentious presentation of data from the triennial Programme for International Student Achievement, which in Scotland is now the only remaining high-quality survey of schools. The report presents Scottish test results in a way that exaggerates recent small improvements in reading, and under-plays the probable continuing decline in mathematics and science. The report fails to explain that the lower-than-average social inequality of attainment in Scotland is not due to any great success by children living in poverty, but rather to poorer-than-average attainment by children from wealthy families.

The report also systematically misinterprets the results of this same survey which investigated students’ awareness of global issues, for example world poverty and health. Scottish students do have above-average ethical commitment on these topics, but there is no reason to attribute this to anything which the school curriculum does. If anything, the evidence suggests that schools in Scotland are less effective than schools elsewhere in providing the knowledge that students would require to back up their ethical ideas. The report’s claim to the contrary is mere rhetoric, citing no evidence whatsoever.

Partial knowledge
The most serious of the report’s failings is in its superficial understanding of the place of knowledge in the curriculum. The report does mention this, but tritely. It does not pay any attention to the extensive recent research by psychologists and neuro-scientists on the importance of children acquiring knowledge.

Too much time in primary schools is spent on fragmented topics or projects, neglecting the over-arching disciplinary structures that would connect them together. Too much of the time in secondary schools is spent on rote-learning facts and text that are to be regurgitated in exams, and then forgotten. The reason to learn facts is as the best means to learning concepts. That’s what knowledge is: not facts themselves, but the concepts that unify facts, or what the psychologists call schemas for understanding.

A schema is a mental structure that connects facts together, enabling learning to be meaningful. For example, rote learning facts about how different plants grow is less effective than subsuming their variety into general botanical concepts.

The skill of a teacher lies in selecting the factual examples that will best illustrate these concepts. The facts are important pedagogically, because most of us find it easier to understand concepts through examples than as direct philosophical exposition. But the purpose is acquiring the concepts, not listing the facts.

The concepts then link together to form a discipline. There is no educational point in pursuing inter-disciplinary projects until the distinct characteristics of each contributing discipline have been grasped.

None of this is even hinted at by the OECD’s report. Proper understanding of the place of knowledge has had no influence on Curriculum for Excellence. Debate about that understanding is never encountered in the normal public deliberations of Scotland’s curricular bodies – Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. So the Scottish government’s decision to abolish the latter and modify the former will make no difference. The philistine landscape of Scottish educational governance will continue unchecked.

This OECD report was a seriously missed opportunity, but it will have a baleful legacy because it will shape Scottish education policy for the foreseeable future. It will encourage the belief that Curriculum for Excellence is essentially fine, that the problems can be addressed by minor tinkering with the institutional structures, and that the leadership class of Scottish education know what they’re doing. They don’t, the structures are irrelevant, and the curriculum is an empty shell. So we are stuck with at least five more years of this stasis, till the next parliamentary elections. Another quarter of a million young people will leave school under-educated, under-achieving by proper international standards, and under-prepared for the real challenges of a very uncertain future.

Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy, Edinburgh University