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Peter MacMahon Blog: Scottish school by school curriculum performance published

Nicola Sturgeon with students at Ayrshire College Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire

The Scottish government has today taken the dramatic step of publishing figures which show how every school in Scotland is doing in terms of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

Those who have long campaigned for greater transparency in Scottish education will see this as a step in the right direction.

Those who say that such a move will inevitably lead of school league tables will see it as a step in the wrong direction.

It is worth noting what these figures do and do not record.

They measure the progress of pupils in reading, writing, listening and talking, and numeracy at Primary 1, 4 and 7 (combined) for primary schools and secondary level 3.

They are measured at what is called early, first, second, and third and fourth (one category) stages of CfE.

Overall across Scotland, the figures revealed that 72% of P7 pupils achieved the required level, down from 75% in P4 and 81% in P1.

For P7, attainment levels as measured by teachers were 72% for reading, 65% for writing, 77% for listening and talking and 68% for numeracy. The statistics showed an improvement in secondary school, with the proportion of S3 pupils achieving CfE third level or better between 84% and 87% for each curriculum area.

And if you want to know how your local school - or any other - is doing here is the website to go to: Tableau Public

However, when I asked a Scottish government spokesperson if they could tell me what these assessments are based on - a broad outline of the kinds of exercises used with pupils to get these results - I was they could not as they are "based on teacher judgement".

Many teachers, local authorities and parents will accept this and trust that people charged with childrens' education, the teachers, are best placed to monitor their progress.

However, others may question the value of these measures.

According to Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University the old Scottish Survey of Achievement which ran until 2009 used to measure how teachers judgement matched objective tests of pupils.

He says research showed a massive discrepancy between teachers’ assessments and objective assessments, all in the direction of teachers’ "grossly over-estimating how well pupils were doing".

Prof Paterson adds: "That is the most recent evidence we have in Scotland on this matter, since comparison between teacher assessments and test-based assessment were no longer published by the Scottish Government after 2009. "But the reliability of teacher assessments is unlikely to have improved since then, because teachers have not had any new formal training in assessment techniques."

But there is another aspect of the education debate that the publication of these figures throws up - that over school league tables. The Scottish government say today's figures are not meant to be used to construct league tables, and their website makes on line comparison impossible.

But it is not difficult for a parent to go to the website, and compare schools. Good news say those who want more information. Bad news say those who say it will lead to schools in poorer neighbourhoods being stigmatised. But for those with the necessary IT skills making a league table out of these figures should be fairly straightforward.

However, it is not so much these figures as the promised standardised assessments for all schools in Scotland that anti-league table campaigners fear.

Credit: Press Association

Under reforms being pushed through by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy and education secretary John Swinney all schools will be tested. And while the government again say this will not lead to league tables, others say it inevitable will.

James McEnaney, a lecturer in English who has pursued the Scottish government on this issue, says some "some very basic contextualisation" for today's information is "probably an attempt to prevent (or undermine) school league tables - but it will not work".

Referring to the Scottish government he continues: "If anything, the simplified version of the data makes it easier to create league tables, not harder, and nobody is going to listen to this nonsense about not comparing schools. "I imagine that they're going to claim that they've prevented league tables when they've actually done the opposite, and they remain 100% responsible for the return of school rankings that always do more harm than good."

Mr Swinney and Ms Sturgeon say that the purpose of all of these assessments is to give ministers the information they need to take action to close the attainment gap between pupils from poor and more affluent backgrounds.

Mr McEnaney says: "Regarding the attainment gap, it isn't going to close. "Though the strength of correlation varies a bit depending on the country you are in the link between socio-economics and educational outcomes is undeniable, and anybody who has ever worked in education can explain why all the shiny new initiatives in the world will never make it go away. "If the government is actually serious about tackling the attainment gap then they should tackle social inequality and poverty - it's just that simple."

And finally when it comes to the potential problem highlighted by Prof Paterson, Mr McEnaney says: "I have no issue trusting teachers to make assessment judgements about their pupils. This data probably falls down because of the political context within which it was gathered (with teachers under huge pressure) and the years of problems with the implementation of CfE, although you could argue that a large part of that is actually the teacher numbers issue manifesting in a different way."