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

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

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:

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:

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:

And that there was not enough robust assessment?

Mr Swinney continued: