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

Education statistics briefing


Reform Scotland says “ONS for schools” needed before more major policy change

Reform Scotland today calls for the creation of an independent body similar to the Office for National Statistics to oversee the collection and analysis of data from Scotland’s schools.

The think tank’s Commission on School Reform has argued that “we know less now about the performance of Scotland’s schools than at any time since the 1950s”. In the digital age there is no justification for the failure to gather and analyse the broadest and deepest levels of data. This would provide a clearer and more honest view of the performance of our education system and better inform policy development.

In addition to establishing this ONS-style body, the think tank also argues that Scotland should immediately rejoin the international TIMSS and PIRLS studies to ascertain how Scotland is performing in comparison to other countries, and to enable us to learn more lessons.

Reform Scotland has also published an accompanying statistical analysis covering the last 20 years, which contains a number of revelations, including:

  • There has been a huge drop in the number of pupils sitting eight exams, falling from 38,467 pupils entered for eight standard grades in 2000 to 3,441 entered for 8 Nat 5s in 2019. The number of pupils gaining 8 credit standard grades or Nat 5 awards fell from 7,826 in 2000 to 2,809 in 2019.
  • There is a big gap in attainment between the state and independent sectors. In 2019 the average number of National 5 entries per learner in S4 in the state sector was 5, with an average of 4.4 awards. For the independent sector it was 7, and 6.8 awards
  • The Logan review highlighted the importance of education in developing the necessary skills for a Scottish technology ecosystem. It is therefore worth noting the decline in Computing exam entries at both National 5 and Higher levels. Nat 5 candidates fell from 7,926 candidates (9.5% of all) in 2016 to 6,344 (7.9%) in 2019. At Higher level computing candidates have fallen from 4,454 (6.5%) in 2016 to 3,228 (5.1%) in 2019.

“We have seen significant changes to our curriculum, exams and educational policy over the last 20 years, but the truth is we know precious little about the impact of those changes, good or bad. In the modern age there is no excuse for failing to collect and analyse educational data at a deep level. Don’t we want to know the reality? What are we scared of?

“Scotland has very few methods of capturing data and using it for the purposes of analysis and comparison, and it has spent the last few years withdrawing from those it does have. We have abandoned the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), and the Scottish Government withdrew us from the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), leaving PISA as the only international survey of how standards in Scottish education compare with other countries.

“This is not good enough for Scotland. We don’t know whether we’re doing well, badly, or somewhere in between, and it seems as though we may be too afraid to find out.

“We should embrace data, and create new ways to collect better data which we can use to benefit our pupils of today and our pupils of tomorrow.”

Alison Payne, Research Director, Reform Scotland

“The plunge in students sitting eight exams is an unintended and unwanted consequence of muddled policy development. If Scotland had better educational data, it would have been picked up much earlier”.

Keir Bloomer, Chair of the Commission on School Reform


Education Statistics Briefing

Education data spreadsheet