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The OECD education report does not offer a solution, it is now part of the problem

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THE REVIEW of Scottish education by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had already acquired a mantric status before it was revealed to the world at the summer solstice. Its origins were in the distant pre-Covid past of autumn 2019, when pass rates in school exams had declined for several years. The Scottish government commissioned a review of how these exams related to Scotland’s ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Just before Covid struck, opposition political parties forced the review’s remit to be extended to cover the whole scope of the curriculum. Covid caused a delay, and – controversially – the postponing of the report’s publication until after the May 2021 elections to the Scottish parliament.

So the expectations were very great. Upon publication, everyone duly performed their pre-announced roles. The Scottish government proclaimed the OECD’s praise for the curriculum. All the opposition parties and most of the news media pointed to the critique of how the curriculum had been implemented. Both sides agreed with the review’s conclusion that the governing networks of Scottish education are introverted and complacent.

Yet the truth is that the review is not definitive, quite the opposite. It is philosophically shallow. It is badly written. It is not based on any kind of systematic statistical evidence. In the absence of that, it has committed the cardinal error of non-statistical research: it did not deliberately seek out evidence that would contradict the views that were being put to the authors by the mainly establishment organisations which they consulted. Along with Curriculum for Excellence and Scotland’s dysfunctional system of qualifications, the review is now part of the problem. 

There are so many detailed ways in which the review is inadequate that enumerating them would take very much more space than is available here. So I’ll concentrate on three: the unconvincing process by which the review reached its conclusions, its misleading presentation of the limited evidence that it collected, and, above all, its no more than rhetorical treatment of the importance of knowledge in any curriculum worthy of the name.

The review team were permitted to talk to only those people whom the Scottish government approved of. The review thus mainly consulted vested interests – existing structures of power with their penumbra of advisory bodies, professional associations, trades unions, and academics. The closest which the review came to meeting ordinary people was in visiting five schools (unavoidably by online means), and in talking to representatives of pupils, parents and teachers in about a dozen others. How these schools were selected is not explained, but the selection wouldn’t pass muster in any properly conducted research design, failing to include any Catholic schools or any independent schools, and under-representing the post-industrial heart of Scotland’s social inequality. 

The statistical deficiencies of the review are partly because the present Scottish government has destroyed what used to be Scotland’s world-leading record of high-quality surveys of education. That record, and thus the intellectual vandalism, go unremarked by the review. Also ignored is the woefully inadequate quality of almost all the statistical measures by which the Scottish government reports on schools. The regular measures of social deprivation are simply not valid. The evaluation of policies that are intended to alleviate inequality (such as the ‘Scottish attainment challenge’) are summaries of opinion, not facts. Even the basic measures of pupils’ attainment are based on teachers’ impressions, not on objective evidence. The OECD cites all these meaningless statistics uncritically.

Yet the OECD could have used data from the one remaining international survey in which Scotland participates, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The review might have re-analysed that data to give more insight into the operation of the Scottish curriculum than the surveys’ triennial reports provide. 

Instead, the review cherry-picks the data from the published PISA reports that present Scotland in the least-bad way. It provides a misleading graph on PISA scores that, because it starts only in 2012, fails to show the decline before that. It says that Scottish pupils did well in the 2018 PISA measures of global competence, whereas closer inspection of that data shows that, although they did have generous ethical views, their knowledge of what might underpin these was shaky.

The review also panders to Scottish self-beliefs about this being a land of egalitarian aspirations. It notes that social disparities of attainment in Scotland are lower than in many comparable countries. But it fails to point out that this is not because of any great achievements by socially disadvantaged pupils. It’s because Scotland suppresses the achievement of pupils whose advantages at home would see them excelling if they lived in, for example, England (a country which gets barely a mention in the review).

Most fundamentally the review is wholly unsatisfactory on the meaning of ‘knowledge’, even though asserting its importance. There is nothing in the review on what psychologists now understand by it (and indeed the complete absence of reference to up‐to‐date psychology and neuro-science is a major reason for the review’s superficiality). Knowledge isn’t just facts. It’s also, and more importantly, a conceptual framework through which we understand facts, apply facts, and assimilate new facts. 

Thus the review does not engage in any detail with what its rhetoric repeatedly refers to as ‘21st century’ social needs. For example, to take a very topical instance, a well-designed science curriculum ought to answer questions of this kind: what varying levels of actual understanding of genetics should be developed at school for the next generation of concerned citizens, of social leaders, and of scientists? The answer is not a list of facts. It is certainly not in what Curriculum for Excellence would advise, a mixture of ‘experiences’ and political argument about genetic modification. The knowledge which these different kinds of pupil need is different levels of conceptual understanding. 

Summing up its admiration for the Curriculum for Excellence, the OECD exaggerates the extent of the consensus in Scotland about it. The review claims that there has been no disagreement with the principles of the curriculum, and that the criticisms have been about its implementation. 

That is simply untrue. 

The review team could, however, be excused for being under such a misapprehension because the Scottish government denied them access to critiques of the curriculum that have been consistently made ever since its inception.

So what happens next is that there will be yet more fiddling around with institutions – abolition of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, removal of the school inspectors from the curriculum advisory body, Education Scotland, re-adjustment of the roles of local authorities. 

None of this will address the most important problems, which are that Scotland has a philistine curriculum that refuses to take knowledge seriously, and that Scotland does not have the basis of rigorous evidence that could tell us what is truly wrong and how to go about fixing it.

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If you are interested in education you may also wish to read this article by former headteacher Carole Ford: Predictably, the OECD report on Scottish education is same old, same old.

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