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

Urgent need for action in Scottish schools – Carole Ford

There has been a continuing concern about the Scottish education system for some years now, thrown into sharp relief by declining results from the international Pisa studies, the recent depressing OECD report and the effects of the pandemic.  Currently, attention is focused on the SQA assessment regime, particularly the place of examinations, and on the configuration of Education Scotland.  These are key strategic cogs in the machine of the education system, but it appears to me that we are ignoring two much more important factors which have a major influence on both individual and collective educational outcomes.  The first is the underlying ethos of our schools and what they are trying to achieve, and the second is the behaviour of pupils and the extent to which it appears to hinder performance.

From my own observations and discussions with teachers, current standards of achievement have fallen sharply.  For pupils following an examination syllabus, they have large gaps in their knowledge and will not be well prepared for the next stage in their education, regardless of the grades they achieve this summer.  Yet, there is no national strategy to retrieve this situation.  Where are the extra classes, the changes in the curriculum, the tutor programmes?  Why is there no outcry for something to be done?  Individual teachers and individual schools are implementing catch up strategies if they can, but the collective response, particularly from the educational establishment, appears to be that it doesn’t really matter.  Contrast this approach with what has been happening in England since June 2020: a school led, locally sourced but nationally funded tutor programme.  Exactly what has Education Scotland been doing for the last two years?

My concern about the standard of pupil performance in Scottish schools goes wider than the post-pandemic scenario.  The lack of urgency over the current situation is the culmination of an anti-intellectual, anti-academic ethos which has pervaded Scottish schools for many years, exacerbated by the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, a misnomer if ever there was one.  By anti-intellectual I am referring to a persistent belittling of the importance of knowledge and conceptual understanding, and a dismissive attitude to the notions of mastery of skills or academic excellence, which have combined to undermine the performance of Scottish pupils.  Concerned parents mitigate this themselves, correcting spelling and punctuation, practising arithmetic skills, inculcating knowledge and understanding their children might not otherwise acquire.   Make no mistake, this educational ethos is the antithesis of that which contributed to Scotland’s previous world class reputation for education.  The OECD report clearly identified the low priority given to acquiring knowledge in our schools.

What is the evidence for my concern?  Aside from the incontrovertible Pisa data which shows a  distinct decline in standards, there has been a steady drop in the numbers of pupils studying STEM subjects and subjects which may be described as more difficult.  In this context, the definition of more difficult is the statistical evidence of the grades awarded by the SQA.  Defined in this way, Physics is harder than Biology, German is harder than Spanish, Geography is harder than Modern Studies.  Schools know this and pupils know this.  What is depressing is that so many pupils deliberately choose the easier options, and there is little incentive for schools to encourage them otherwise.  At a time when technology could not be more important, Scotland has fewer pupils studying Maths, Physics and Computing. In an increasingly global world, Scotland’s young people are avoiding foreign languages.

A snapshot of the anti-intellectual ethos: at Higher level, excellence is positively discouraged by the current inspection regime.  Four Highers at grade A are worth less than five at grade C in the eyes of HMIe and school league tables.  But to the individual pupil, four As will gain entry to a wider range of courses, including high tariff courses, than five Cs ever will.  Crucially, a candidate with four As has gained a much surer foundation for future study.  In short, the system favours mediocrity over excellence, collective data over individual pupil performance.  Almost uniquely among developed countries, Scotland’s schools have limited scope to deliver the most academically challenging courses.  There is seriously restricted availability of Advanced Higher classes in most schools; in more deprived areas and in smaller schools, provision may be as low as one or two subjects.  What price social equity in this context?

Our curriculum relies on experiences, exposure to facts and skills, rather than an explicit expectation that pupils will learn the facts or master the skills.  The paucity of assessment throughout the broad general phase of education, from age 5 to 15, clearly illustrates the relaxed attitude to retention of knowledge.  Scottish school children study the Vikings, the Victorians, the Egyptians, the Romans.  Ask them to point to the relevant countries on a map, or whether the Roman empire pre- or post-dates the Viking incursions, and you may be seriously disappointed in the answers.  Worse still, display a map of Scotland and see how many could point to the location of their hometown, or Edinburgh, or the Outer Hebrides.  Subjects which require prior knowledge and the retention of further knowledge, are suffering the most under this philosophy.  Algebra is very difficult if you cannot remember how to divide two fractions; foreign languages are very difficult if you are not comfortable with the concept of nouns, verbs and adjectives.  Knowledge and understanding are built on previous knowledge and understanding, yet pupils place little importance on acquiring either in an experiential curriculum.  They do not understand that learning is a conscious act, only rarely accomplished by osmosis.

Since the acquisition of knowledge plays such a small role in the current curriculum, teaching methods prioritise process and activity over outcome.   Innovative teaching strategies abound, with no independent evaluation worthy of the name, no analysis of their efficacy.  Many teachers try to avoid exposition, wrongly described as passive learning.  There is nothing passive about any form of learning; it requires active cognitive effort.  The mistaken notion of active versus passive learning presupposes that typing your credit card number into your laptop is an effective way to learn it.  I think many of us know that is not true.  Sit down for five minutes and make the cognitive effort to learn it, and you will.  To avoid direct teaching, teachers attempt to draw ideas from pupils or invent activities to lead them to the desired outcome.  There are occasions when these techniques are fruitful, but they are rarely effective with new facts or difficult concepts, particularly abstract concepts.  I have observed teachers tying themselves in knots trying to ‘draw out’ a mathematical concept from a class of very bewildered pupils.  If it was easy to spot Pythagoras’ Theorem for yourself, Pythagoras would not be famous for having done so.  The consequence of these ineffective methods is that understanding is insecure for many pupils, and it is much slower for all of them.

The debate over SQA qualifications is a clear illustration of the prevailing ethos.  The debate is all about whether the exams should go ahead or not; there is little debate about how much learning has actually taken place in the last two years, how future study will be affected by large gaps in pupil understanding, the standard at which the exams should be set or the actual quality of the examinations themselves.  The fears over teaching to the test would be largely eliminated by better designed examinations.

The second issue which is receiving even less attention than performance standards is classroom behaviour.  Most teachers are aware of a steady decline in pupil behaviour over a number of years.  This is attributable to many factors but you will search CfE in vain for references to productive learning behaviours such as listening quietly, following teacher instruction, working hard, completing homework, or persevering when encountering difficulty, the behaviours which successful learners almost uniformly display.   We acknowledge that pupil outcomes are adversely affected by family difficulties, specific cognitive or mental health issues and poverty, the last being the most significant of all.  But the educational establishment does not acknowledge that pupil outcomes are very seriously affected by both individual behaviour and the behaviour of classmates.  Teachers are fully aware of this.  They attribute much of the decline in standards to poor behaviour and they attribute their own high stress levels to the same.  It is the elephant in the room of Scottish education, that difficult behaviour not only affects how children learn, it affects what teachers attempt to teach.

Adolescents and children may misbehave simply because it is more fun than working.  Young people are not throwing chairs around: they talk constantly, when the teacher is talking or others are trying to work; they do not listen to or follow teacher instruction; they fail to bring necessary equipment, not even a pencil in some cases; they rarely complete homework; their work rate is close to zero as they chat to friends; they play with their phones which, strangely enough, they never forget to bring, unlike the afore mentioned pencil. Teachers report a distinct drop in motivation caused by the cancellation of exams, a diminution in work ethic following the periods of lockdown and a management reluctance to use any form of discipline to improve the situation.  The possible impact on mental health  is the major deterrent to effective deployment of discipline measures.  The concern is well founded but the laissez faire strategy is not.  Educational standards are suffering, no individual pupil benefits from achieving less, the majority of pupils in a class may be held back by the behaviour of a minority.  The actual content of lessons may be dictated by behavioural rather than pedagogical concerns.

Sound mental health is developing as the single largest influence on the education system. This may be no bad thing but why is working hard to achieve discernible, worthwhile progress no longer regarded as an effective counter to mental health issues?  Why is so little consideration given to the failure to achieve positive educational outcomes as a source of anxiety?  Of course, the ethos and environment of the school should be designed to have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of pupils and staff, but its purpose must centre on educational outcomes.  Tolerating poor behaviour, to the detriment of both individual and collective outcomes, to the detriment of staff morale and wellbeing, is no solution.   As most teachers are fully aware, there is a correlation between poorer behaviour and economic and social disadvantage, for the reasons noted above.  Relaxing behavioural standards is a backdoor elitism which disproportionately impacts on the very pupils who can least afford it.   We routinely acknowledge that achieving five Highers in a disadvantaged school takes more individual grit and determination than in the leafy suburbs yet we take no steps to improve this situation.  This low expectation of behaviour has a direct inhibiting impact on achievement.  Teaching strategies are designed to appease and accommodate the less motivated, very often to the detriment of educational outcomes, particularly for those who are motivated to learn.  Individual teachers cannot instil a standard of behaviour that senior management will not support.  There is not a lot of headroom  for the lad o’ pairts if he is sitting in a classroom surrounded by children who never stop talking.

These two issues, an anti-intellectual ethos and poor classroom behaviour, feed off each other.  Pupils are unwilling to complete homework; some teachers now claim that homework is unnecessary and elitist, despite the evidence of its positive impact on learning.  The logic appears to be that if some choose not to complete it, we should stop everyone from doing so.  It is certainly the most effective way to close the attainment gap, lowering achievement from above, but not a positive educational strategy in anyone’s interests.

The anti-intellectual ethos is also influencing the longer term debate about the future assessment and qualifications system in Scotland.  There is vocal support among some teachers and elements of the educational establishment for the abolition of examinations entirely, despite their clear advantages in terms of fairness and maintaining universal standards.  Fairness and standards are the reasons for the ubiquitous nature of exams, across every aspect of learning, and across the globe.  From the driving test and music grades to accountancy and medicine.  From progressive education systems in Sweden and Finland, to the rigours of Singapore.  There is no doubt that teachers have varying internalised standards, and varying levels of conscious or unconscious bias.  The very many ways in which teachers, parents, or tutors can impact on school based assessments is a whole other problem.  Basing a high stakes assessment system on teacher grades alone will be unfair and it will be the usual suspects who suffer if the objectivity of examinations is removed or diminished – girls, ethnic minorities, the economically or socially disadvantaged.   Universal standards across schools will be difficult to maintain with the obnoxious possibility of qualifications from one school being considered more valuable than from another.  Universities are ample evidence of how this could develop.  The principal basis for the removal of exams appears to be the idea that expected standards of performance are not necessary; we should not judge pupil performance against an objective measure; challenging young people to achieve a particular standard may be stressful; personal development, not the acquisition of specific knowledge and understanding, is the key objective.  But striving for achievable goals is the prime motivator for most human endeavour, as teachers are now more keenly aware than ever.  And those very specific standards are the key to successful future study.  Personally, I want my bridges built by engineers who understand forces and my appendix removed by a surgeon who remembers where it is.    

All pupils deserve an education which delivers knowledge and understanding, which teaches them how to learn and acquire skills, in a classroom environment which fosters rather than hinders their progress.   Scotland’s future productivity and economic development will be adversely affected by an education system which does not actively strive to deliver excellence and high standards at every stage, or to promote the behaviours which will facilitate that.   Individuals will not achieve their potential, particularly those with the greatest obstacles to overcome.  While our pupils are being introduced to calculus through the medium of interpretive dance, youngsters in Estonia will be forging ahead, solving differential equations in their sleep.

Carole Ford is a member of the Commission for School Reform.  She is the former Head Teacher of Kilmarnock Academy, chair of the Scottish Secondary Mathematics Group and co-author of a number of maths textbooks.  She works as an associate tutor in teacher education.