1. ITV Report

Is new Curriculum to blame for decline in Scotland's schools?

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the figures made 'uncomfortable reading'. Photo: PA

When he published the Performance for International Student Assessment (PISA) figures showing a decline in performance in Scotland's education, deputy First Minister John Swinney said they made "uncomfortable reading".

Given his candid response you might have expected Mr Swinney, who is also the education secretary, to have an uncomfortable time when he faced MSPs this afternoon at Holyrood.

He did face some severe criticism from opposition politicians but Mr Swinney - who can, to use a polite term, be a robust debater - dealt with it in a considered and measured manner.

Credit: PA

The education secretary admitted there were problems in Scotland's schools but argued the SNP government was going to deal with them through its reform proposals.

Yet during his questioning by MSP few mentioned the possibility that the major reform of Scotland school education system, the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) might responsible for the decline in Scotland's global standing.

CfE is a policy which has been developed pretty much over the lifetime of the Scottish parliament, and is supported in principle by all the main political parties, most educationalists and teacher unions.

It is supposed to 'empower' teachers (sorry jargon) and to teach pupils in a broad way which gets away from rote learning and narrow subject areas.

Responding to the PISA figures, this is what Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, told ITV Border earlier today in a statement:

"What has changed that might explain this dismaying Scottish performance? The main policy change in the decade is Curriculum for Excellence. When the PISA 2012 results were released in 2013, the beginning of this decline was evident, but the policy response was that it would take time for Curriculum for Excellence to bed in. It now has."

"The students who sat these PISA tests have been educated under Curriculum for Excellence since they were age 10. Students in England in the same period have not suffered the same decline, and yet share an economic and social context that is broadly similar to Scotland's except in policy on schooling. If Curriculum for Excellence is not the explanation of Scottish decline, then what is?"

– Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University
Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University Credit: University of Edinburgh

In an interview for tonight's Representing Border I ask Mr Swinney about the PISA report and the Curriculum for Excellence.

Why, I asked him, has this decline happened?

The education secretary told me:

"What has happened is that we have undertaken a major reform in the curriculum. In the course of doing that there has been a need to ensure there's been a constant improvement of performance at the same time. That's not happened."

– John Swinney, Deputy First Minister

Mr Swinney told me that the OECD, in a separate report last year, had looked at CfE and recommended reforms, which he was pursuing.

These include:

  • Closing the attainment gap.
  • More assessment information to track performance of young people and intervene where they need help.
  • Simplifying the curriculum so there is more concentration on learning and teaching.
  • Strengthening leadership in schools with schools central to delivery of education.
John Swinney, Deputy First Minister Credit: PA

But I put it to Mr Swinney that the figures in the PISA report show decline going back before SNP government. I asked him is the problem something more fundamental, is the problem the Curriculum for Excellence itself?

This was his reply:

Curriculum for excellence was assessed by the OECD and they considered it to be a bold and a successful reform that was delivering a broadened education experience for young people within Scotland..."

– John Swinney, Deputy First Minister

And that there was not enough robust assessment?

Mr Swinney continued:

And that's precisely what we are not addressing and that's why I've taken forward measures to undertake standardised assessment at different stages in the school journey of young people.

"Because what we have here is a survey at the age of 15 of a limited number of young people in Scotland.We need to know if young people are finding their education challenging much earlier than that and intervene, give them the support and improve their performance so by the time they get to 15 on the platform of their senior phase of education they are as strongly equipped to perform as they possibly can be."

– John Swinney, Deputy First Minister

More on this story