Shifting to a more knowledge-based curriculum is the only way Scottish schools can recover from the decline in standards, writes Lindsay Paterson.
Scotland’s results in the most recent international comparison of educational attainment were shocking. The analysis – published in December – came from the 2022 Programme for International Student Assessment (usually known as PISA), which has been run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development since the early years of the century. It is the world’s largest and best-quality resource for educational research, covering in 2022 around 700,000 students in 81 countries. The four parts of the UK have large enough samples to allow reliable analysis of trends within each.
PISA tests 15-year-old students in three domains – reading, mathematics and science. In each, Scottish attainment has fallen sharply in the past decade. To encapsulate the magnitude of these changes, it is useful to follow the OECD advice that a 20-point shift is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of schooling. On that basis, the average attainment of Scottish 15-year-olds fell between 2012 and 2022 by 8 months in reading, 16 months in mathematics, and 18 months in science.
To put that in perspective, the fall in England in the same period was 2 months in reading and mathematics and 8 months in science. Most of these English changes happened since 2018, and probably reflected mainly the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic. Between 2012 and 2018, attainment in England rose in reading and mathematics, and fell only slightly in science. In Scotland, by contrast, attainment fell between 2012 and 2018 in mathematics and science, and was stable in reading (having already fallen by the equivalent of about 15 months since 2000).
The reason that the comparison with England is important is that it holds constant many of the contextual influences on attainment. For example, Scotland and England had similar experiences of Covid, and so most of the Scottish decline between 2012 and 2022 cannot be attributed to that. Similarly, the labour market operates in similar ways throughout Britain, and therefore social inequality arising from it means the same in each part of Britain.
The Scottish decline was especially large for academically weaker students. In science, the fall from 2012 to 2022 was equivalent to 28 months for students at the lowest 10% of attainment, but 8 months for those at the highest 10%. In mathematics, the corresponding falls were 22 months and 10 months. In reading, the weakest students fell by 20 months, while the strongest rose by 5 months. In England, the decline for the weakest students was only a third of the Scottish change in science and reading, and only a tenth in mathematics. For the strongest students, there was barely any decline in England – 3 months in science, no change in mathematics, and a rise similar to Scotland’s of 4 months in reading.
Although, within Scotland, low-attaining students thus fared particularly badly over time, in 2022 Scotland was further behind England for high-attaining than for low-attaining students in science and mathematics: in these domains, the Scottish deficit was equivalent to about 7-8 months for low-attaining students but 13-14 months for high-attaining. There was no such differences in reading.
The decline since 2012 in Scotland also exacerbated socio-economic inequality. The PISA studies measure this by an index of economic, social and cultural capital, recording parental occupation, the cultural resources in the family home (such as books and internet access), and the educational activities which parents are able to offer to their children. One way to measure educational inequality with respect to this index is to compare attainment in the highest-status and lowest-status quarters of its distribution.
Between 2012 and 2022, in science, attainment in Scotland fell by the equivalent of 23 months in the low-status quarter but by 14 months in the highest-status quarter. In mathematics, the decline was 22 months and 11 months. In reading, it was 12 months and 3 months. So inequality rose by 9 months in science and reading, and by 11 months in mathematics. In England, by contrast, inequality actually fell by 3 months in science and reading, and by 1 month in mathematics. The reason for the fall of inequality in England was mainly that the lowest-status students progressed more than the highest-status. Another way of summarising this is that low-status students in 2022 performed consistently better in England than in Scotland – by 8 months in reading, 20 months in mathematics, and 16 months in science.
So Scottish attainment has been falling, it has been falling particularly badly among students from low-status families, and social inequality is now notably worse than in England mainly because low-status students are doing much better in England than in Scotland.
The PISA data do not provide a ready explanation for these changes, but the comparison with England suggests that it has something to do with education policy and practice, rather than with wider social change. The main difference has been in the curriculum. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence was officially inaugurated in 2010, and so the 2012 PISA students were the first to have had some of their schooling with that curriculum. The 2022 group were the first to have had their whole schooling shaped by it. The most important difference between that curriculum and the curriculum in England is in the place of knowledge. Curriculum for Excellence is sceptical of what its proponents call traditional subjects, whereas the English curriculum has concentrated increasingly on these.
The patterns of decline tend to reinforce this interpretation. The Scottish decline was greatest in science, next in mathematics and least in reading. Students can to some extent develop their reading capacity at home, but few parents will remember enough mathematics to teach their children beyond the stage of late primary school, and science depends completely on highly specialised knowledge and on expensive equipment which only schools can provide. The Scottish deficit compared to England followed the same pattern, because it was especially notable for students from low-status families. The speculation would be that they are better-served by the English curriculum because it is based on systematic knowledge.
The English curriculum is in fact more than two decades old, because it may be traced to the assertion of the importance of standards in literacy and numeracy when David Blunkett was Secretary of State for Education in Tony Blair’s government. The insistence on standards was extended to a strengthening of knowledge by Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State in the UK coalition government after 2010, and that principle was maintained by Nick Gibb who was schools minister for almost the whole time between then and 2023. The scepticism about systematic knowledge in Curriculum for Excellence also has precedents, not only because schools were being encouraged to adopt its approach from around 2006, but also because doubts about subject knowledge have been an influential theme in Scottish policy since the 1990s.
This contrast in approaches to knowledge can give clues about how Scottish policy should react to the disappointing PISA results. But before dealing with that, a further point about the two curricular approaches is important. The defenders of the Curriculum for Excellence claim that its strengths lie in non-academic goals – for example, in enabling students to be motivated enough to work on their own, to discover knowledge for themselves, or to feel that the school is a welcoming environment. They also claim that the curriculum prepares people better for life as a citizen.
Yet the PISA data suggest that the Scottish approach is no better at these aims than the English policy. For example, the proportion of students feeling confident that they were sufficiently motivated to do school work was 47% in each country. The proportion who were confident that they could find learning resources on their own was 73% in each. The proportion feeling that they belong in school was only very slightly higher in Scotland than in England (67% against 63%).
On citizenship, there was a special module of questions in the 2018 PISA study in which Scotland took part. Unfortunately, the rest of the UK did not, but we can compare Scotland to the rest of the EU where 20 countries used these questions. Scottish 15-year-olds do come out of this comparison quite well, with generally more liberal views than students elsewhere. But this was due more to their own networks than to schools, because the students’ reports of what schools teach them about citizenship were no better than the EU average, and in significant respects worse. For example, the proportion reporting that their school taught them about different cultures was 70% in Scotland and 76% across the EU. The proportions for learning about the interconnectedness of countries’ economies were respectively 40% and 56%.
Therefore it does not appear that the Scottish curriculum has succeeded in the aims that its advocates claim might compensate for the lack of attention to knowledge.
We know from abundant research from many countries (including England) that the most effective curriculum is based on systematic knowledge. In particular, that kind of curriculum is especially necessary for academically weaker students and for students from homes where less educational support is available. Many writers have suggested this egalitarian potential of a curriculum based on knowledge – Daisy Christodoulou and David Didau in England, and E. D. Hirsch in the USA. In Scotland, Bruce Robertson – rector of Berwickshire High School – has argued in a series of books that knowledge is liberating. In England, the Oak National Academy – founded by Matt Hood and colleagues during the pandemic, and still flourishing – offers lesson plans online to teachers founded on these principles. These advocates are all experienced school teachers who draw on robust research, and who have become increasingly sceptical of the hostility to knowledge that underpins fashionable policies like Curriculum for Excellence.
There are two fundamental aspects of a curriculum based on knowledge. One is an attention to the basics, the main task of primary schooling, which includes not only the capacity to read, write, and count effectively, but also the character to work hard, to defer gratification, to learn from mistakes, and to respect the expert teacher. They are the essential basis of everything that follows in education.
The other aspect of imparting systematic knowledge is the subject divisions of the secondary school. Subjects are not arbitrary: they are the sedimentation of centuries of gradual refinement of human understanding. Students need to be grounded in their ideas, methods and provisional truths. They can only acquire that from expert teachers who are themselves well-educated in disciplinary knowledge, and who are teaching a curriculum that is based on these principles.
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Adherence to knowledge of this kind used to be widely accepted in Scotland. Until the 1990s, it was agreed that the purpose of schooling was to impart systematic knowledge. The aim of comprehensive schooling was to ensure that children from all kinds of social background would get access to the kinds of knowledge that used to be offered only to elites. Scottish comprehensive schools were, on the whole, gradually achieving these goals between the 1960s and the 1990s: attainment improved without any dilution of standards, social inequality of all kinds fell, and students’ satisfaction with school rose. The steady progress was a prime instance of social democratic reform – unspectacular, but eventually successful. Curriculum for Excellence, inaugurated between 2004 and 2010, ignored the steady progress that comprehensive schooling was inexorably achieving.
Shifting the Scottish curriculum back in this direction cannot be done quickly. One reason is the disruption which the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence has already caused. Teachers who have been in post throughout the last two decades would not welcome another fundamental upheaval, especially when they are also still having to cope with the educational aftermath of Covid, which has resulted in rising levels of misbehaviour by students and rising levels of student absence. Another reason is that teachers who have been trained since the new curriculum was becoming official policy will not have the experience to develop and teach lessons that are based on knowledge. Teacher training has been shaped by the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence for about a decade and a half. Around a half of current teachers are aged 40 or younger, and so have entered teaching in that time. Thus they do not yet have the professional expertise to teach a curriculum based on knowledge.
Nevertheless, shifting to a more knowledge-based curriculum is the only way in which Scottish education can begin to recover from the decline that PISA records. Small steps in that direction would be to specify the curriculum in far more detail than at present. This would be useful to teachers for whom the vagueness of the guidelines from the Curriculum for Excellence is frustrating. Detail of that kind is also how structured knowledge has been embedded in the English curriculum.
None of this change will be easy, and it will certainly have to be done in cooperation with teachers, never imposed upon them. But, although the reform will take many years to bear fruit, starting it is urgent. The next Scottish parliament election will take place in May 2026. If the current Scottish government fails to act before then, the opposition political parties should force the agenda. They ought to make educational standards a prominent part of the election debate. They can do that by developing a coherent programme of curricular reform and a practicable plan for its implementation.