Scotland’s school’s PISA results ‘lean’ toward nothing meaningful. Finland’s success is not real. South Korea and China’s educational programmes amount to child abuse

Reporting Scotland and the opposition parties scream out ‘crisis’ and reveal just how little they know about education, especially international comparisons. Here is the truth of the matter in ten statements which I’ll elaborate a bit below:

  1. Some tests just suit some countries’ education systems. Doing well in one test doesn’t make that country’s overall education system better than that of lower rankers and in some cases, especially in East Asia (China, Korea, Singapore), it is evidence of them being worse in many ways.
  2. The PISA results are based on unreliable estimates with huge scope for error and thus, I quote, ‘useless.’
  3. Summarising a country’s education system in just three numbers is, I quote, ‘madness.’
  4. Comparing countries with radically different cultures and educational structures is meaningless.
  5. PISA does not measure curriculum knowledge just general skills, so the so-called successes of Finland and South Korea or the middle-rank ‘failure’ of Scotland are not based on the quality of their teachers, their schools or their curriculum.
  6. The Finnish system is not that successful in other ways that PISA does not test.
  7. The highly authoritarian, ‘industrial’ East Asian systems are a form of child abuse we surely do not want to see in Scotland.
  8. The East Asian systems are not at all successful in developing the creativity, originality and innovation needed for future success in developed societies.
  9. The East Asian systems, in most cases, brutally abandon children with learning difficulties.
  10. The Scottish system is highly successful in feeding its universities with ever more and better qualified students, it is inclusive, caring and explicitly promotes creativity, originality and innovation.


Some tests just suit some countries

The Finnish system, used to do badly and you could argue they now teach toward the tests to get good results with an emphasis on developing general problem-solving skills rather than curriculum knowledge which, perhaps, the Scottish schools do better? The East Asian schools, as we’ll see below, force-feed their children with highly intensive and long days with disturbing side-effects, but high scores in PISA and in other tests like TIMSS.


With PISA methods only a small number of pupils in each school answer the same set of questions, with these results then used to estimate students’ ‘latent’ ability. According to Professor Spiegelhaller of Cambridge University, this creates a huge scope for error and make the results useless.


Dr Hugh Morrison of Queen’s University, Belfast says bluntly: ‘There are very few things you can summarise with a number and yet PISA claims to be able to capture a country’s education system in just three of them. It can’t be possible. It is madness.’


Given the huge range and diversity of educational practice, values, cultures, economies and parent behaviour across countries as alien to each other as, say, Scotland, China, Peru and Tunisia, making comparisons is pointless and perhaps damaging.

Finland and South Korea’s ‘Success’

Finland and South Korea seem quite different at first sight yet both are successful in PISA. Closer examination, however, reveals they have two identical features which make it easier for them to win at the game of PISA.

First, in both languages, words are written just as they are said unlike in other languages especially English. This means language acquisition happens quicker and more successfully across all pupil abilities than in other countries giving their systems more time, earlier, to build on these language skills to develop general problem-solving skills. Notice the English-speaking USA and UK are only middle achievers in PISA.

Second, both cultures are very homogeneous with few migrant groups with other first languages pulling down the scores as they struggle with a new language. It’s for this reason that the otherwise very similar Swedish system appears to do much less well because it has 10 times the immigration rate of Finland.

Why the Finnish System is not so successful

 Like South Korean children, Finnish pupils are at the bottom of the tables in assessments of happiness in school and rarely answer yes to ‘I am happy at school’. Perhaps the Finnish emphasis on group-work and general problem-solving is not so ‘child-centred’ as many in the UK think?

Also, Finland does much worse in the wider TIMSS tests of wider and valuable mathematics knowledge coming 95 points behind China though it is only 2 points behind in PISA.

Child Abuse 

The East Asian systems in South Korea and Shanghai/China are based on gruelling programmes with 13 hour days and only 5.5 hours sleeping time. Social time is not mentioned at all. Professor Zhao of Oregon University has described them as:

‘Glorifying educational authoritarianism and romanticising misery.’

In 2014, the New York Times described South Korea’s system as ‘an assault on children’ and suggested that South Korea:

‘..produces ranks of over-achieving students who pay a stiff price in health and happiness. The entire programme amounts to child abuse.’

Pupil suicide rates are high in East Asia and low in the UK.

Creativity, Originality and Innovation

 Developed and developing countries need innovators along with cadres of skilled workers who can replicate current standards. East Asian companies often have to buy-in Western innovations, staff and start-up companies from places like Scotland. In 2014, The Harvard Business Review said:

‘China’s examination hell; how can students so focused on test scores possibly become innovators?

 Even Finland’s success can be overstated. Its economic innovations have been in the context of only one company, Nokia, and it is now in decline.

Leaving ‘special’ children to languish and fail

According to teacher’s chat-room evidence (the only kind allowed out of these countries), very few East Asian schools make arrangements to support children with conditions such as ADHD or autism in their race for high test ratings and the status that comes with them and that our Labour and Tory politicians shamefully seem to believe.


The Scottish system is not perfect. All educational systems are infinitely improvable. It is however, caring, inclusive, and successful with ever greater numbers of exam passes and, critically, for the future, has an explicit commitment to creativity from its government:

‘Creativity is very clearly at the heart of the philosophy of Curriculum for Excellence.’

 Scotland has a long and strong record of innovations, some of them sold to China recently.

Despite Scotland’s frankly more humane, more future-oriented system, it still does respectably well in international tests of little real value. Dips and rises in these, mean little or nothing at all.

Why doesn’t Reporting Scotland tell us any of this? They fail my test.


34 thoughts on “Scotland’s school’s PISA results ‘lean’ toward nothing meaningful. Finland’s success is not real. South Korea and China’s educational programmes amount to child abuse

  1. broadbield December 8, 2016 / 4:03 pm

    Thanks for that corrective, John, which those of us in/have been in the education system know. But which the media and Unionist politicians gleefully and ignorantly parade as proof of the SG’s failure. Of course, we also all know there is always room for improvement and one of the improvements would be an end to the constant tinkering and initiativitis. It was Munn & Dunning when I started and it never seemed to stop. Yes, some of the changes were beneficial, but there is a need for consolidation and some clear thinking rather than the Pavlovian response (of we need another initiative) as soon as some “bad” figures come out. It would also be refreshing to find a politician who knew something about the limitations of testing and had some statistical awareness – for example knew what SE Meas meant..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. boris December 8, 2016 / 5:24 pm

    A finely structured analytical examination of a report that made no claim to be anything other than a snapshot of the educational aptitude of a small group of 15 year old children across the world..

    I fully expected the media in Scotland would follow the lead of the BBC extracting and publishing anything from the report, negative in regards to Scotland with an emphasis on the positive on England’s performance. And my expectations were justified.

    But a look-back over a 15 year cycle provided evidence of very little change in the performance of the UK as an entity (despite the wasteful injection of £30bn by the Labour Party.)

    What is of note is the better overall performance of Scotland’s children against each of the other home countries except only in science where England achieved a marginally higher score, (which was well within the margin of error)


    • johnrobertson834 December 8, 2016 / 9:16 pm

      Thanks Boris. Kind words much appreciated. May have confused your comments with CJ.


  3. westmainsek December 9, 2016 / 11:09 am

    Professor thanks for your analysis. I really despair at the supine docility of the SNP in the face of these vicious propaganda barrages from the unionists and their MSM. The back stabbing of Scotland by them is sickening. The first Reporting Scotland report on this was immediately followed by recycled reports on our obesity problems. The agenda is blatantly clear. At every opportunity undermine Scottish confidence.
    What is your opinion of the report from 2014 from the ONS who say, ” In terms of the proportion of the population going into higher and tertiary education, Scotland actually has just about the highest in the world,” ONS chief economic adviser Joe Grice told ITV News.
    Why does the SNP not use these comments?


    • johnrobertson834 December 9, 2016 / 6:19 pm

      Thanks you. Good point about other evidence unused by the SNP to fight back. I think the policy under Sturgeon is to take criticism on the chin and promise to improve. They never fight back now. Salmond would.


  4. Bryan Weir December 9, 2016 / 2:38 pm

    A great insight John.

    Incidentally I watched the whole of the London Calling film. Your contribution was very good and very convincing.

    For those who want to watch it you’ll find it on YouTube.


    • johnrobertson834 December 9, 2016 / 5:29 pm

      Thanks Bryan. Who is that auld git! Oh no, it’s me. I’ve aged


  5. Clydebuilt December 9, 2016 / 5:12 pm

    Great analysis John…… This is the only test our kids sit where no preparation is done.

    Now we know what the P in PISA stands for ……..Pointless……

    Good to cya back buddy


    • johnrobertson834 December 9, 2016 / 5:31 pm

      Thanks CB, Pointless Intelligence Statistics for Arses? I’m still just on day release from the hospital. Back in tonight. Hopefully free by Thursday next.


      • Clydebuilt December 10, 2016 / 9:38 am

        So your on day release with a tag…….


  6. broadbield December 9, 2016 / 7:30 pm

    OT, but the other week I heard totally unsolicited praise for the Scottish NHS from a relation recently moved up here and who has several chronic conditions. Compared to his experience down south he found the local hospital a delight (if that’s the right word), friendly, helpful, uncomplaining staff, speedy appointments, and good clinical treatment. I hope you are finding the same.


  7. Annette December 9, 2016 / 10:39 pm

    I agree with many of the points you make. After all, PISA measures only that which is measurable, and the most precious achievements of education are not measurable. However, as a practitioner I am worried about the large numbers of children in secondary school who cannot spell or do simple maths and whose ability to retain accurate information even over a short period of time is very limited. I have various ideas about what we could do to improve our school system, but I believe the most crucial step would be raising the school starting age to 6 or 7. There is ample neuroscientific evidence that children at 4 or 5 do not have sufficiently mature brain structures to tackle formal education. The other crucial thing would be to ensure that the brightest and best young people are attracted to the teaching career, so that teachers are exquisitely-trained academic high achievers who are trusted to do an excellent job.


    • Muscleguy December 14, 2016 / 4:10 pm

      Except I know a wee boy who has only just turned 5 who was DESPERATE to learn to read and so was starting to do so before he started school. To deny him this skill until 6 or 7 would be a form of child abuse. Our eldest daughter was exactly the same 25 years ago in Southern NZ. I don’t remember if I could read or not but I started school aged 4 1/2 and it has not done me any harm, science PhD, published in Nature, two well adjusted daughters raised to adulthood married all that time. I’m not rich, but we have a house that is warm and weather sealed and enough to eat. I have enough to buy new running shoes occasionally. IOW I’m content.

      So colour me sceptical on the 6 or 7 thing. This is pushed by the Steiner schools and I believe the ‘evidence’ is distorted by them. They abuse kids in a different way filling their heads with spiritualism and fear of demons. They also don’t teach science and the kids don’t get the standard qualifications.


      • johnrobertson834 December 14, 2016 / 6:41 pm

        Beyond my expertise. Thanks for the comments.


  8. Clydebuilt December 10, 2016 / 9:43 am

    Just listenning to Donalda that it has not been proved that the BBC were biased during the referendum. Going to get more of the same old……. No surprise there eh!

    Gotta get these billboards up ……and get the 50,000 DVDs of “London Calling ” made and distributed (with the instruction to pass on when viewed)

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnrobertson834 December 10, 2016 / 1:15 pm

      Thank you. All fair points and I agree with your suggestions but international comparison tests remain useless.


  9. Rie Tomita December 11, 2016 / 9:08 am

    I am a Japanese. Professor does not mention about Japan at all, which also got high scores and continue to produce people who are prized Nobel Prize almost every year. The lack of the reference is very strange to me. And we are not always borrowing the technique from the West.. sometimes vice versa.

    English speaking people are allowed to be lazy, aren’t they?
    If you go to a foreign country, everywhere people will talk to you in English. So you and your kids do not have to study foreign languages so seriously.
    Do you have many people who can speak several tongues fluently?

    Unlike English speaking or alphabet using countries, China and Japan have many thousands letters to learn to write even in the primary stage. Only in order to write our mother tongue, we have to drill and drill at the early stage. Then we have to go to English, which is a totally different langage system from the native language.

    However, I suppose these processes help us to learn more.
    As you know, Renaissance Humanism started from language learning.

    (However, I do not know whether Scottish education is good or bad. My main point is that your view is too Western-centered.)


      • Rie Tomita December 11, 2016 / 6:22 pm

        Although I cannot answer you, according to this Pisa date itself, Japanese pupils study less than Koreans in science.


      • johnrobertson834 December 12, 2016 / 6:59 pm

        Thanks Rie for this information. Useful in my report more global


    • Bryan Weir December 11, 2016 / 4:24 pm

      Rie, John’s review is Scottish centred. On a blog like this and on this specific subject why would it be anything else?


      • johnrobertson834 December 12, 2016 / 7:01 pm

        Cheers Bryan. Would be interesting to if Japanese system is moving away from harsh approach.


  10. Rie Tomita December 11, 2016 / 6:57 pm

    John’s logic is that the Pisa data do not represent how good the country’s education is. ( Somehow I agree.) According to him, in short, East Asian got hih scores, because its education is inhumane. This might be his prejudice, I would like to say. In his thinking, the centre of the world is the West and the best thing is in the West and Scotland is the centre of the West. In East Asia, there are another incentives to study hard. Those are needs to drill in early stages as I said, and inevitable competitiveness by living in densely populated areas. I do not know whether educations in these areas are good nor not. But whether good or not, pupils tend to get high scores by these factors, I suppose.


  11. Rie Tomita December 13, 2016 / 1:56 am

    John and Bryan, thank you.


  12. Iain December 13, 2016 / 10:02 am

    This is a very interesting article, but there are a couple of points it would be interesting to expand on.

    1. I don’t think we can say that the more phonetic orthographic system of Finnish helps with language acquisition as this initially occurs before literacy, but the point is taken that Finnish orthography helps enormously with literacy.
    2. It would be good to know how Finland’s Swedish-medium schools fare within the Finnish systrem, not to mention the Saami-medium schools in the north.



    • johnrobertson834 December 13, 2016 / 4:13 pm

      Thanks for this fair and interesting additions. I got my evidence from sources which i should have added. Currently in hospital with only phone.


  13. Fed up citizen of Scotland January 6, 2017 / 11:07 am

    There is nothing ‘creative’ about the education my children are receiving in Scotland at a supposedly ‘good’ primary school. My children are intelligent and interested in the world and yet there is nothing at school to inspire them. It is boring, stultifying and utterly stripped of meaningful content. The CfE is supposed to be ‘skills based’ rather than content driven so why did Scotland do badly in the skills based PISA tests? The answer is obvious if you step inside a Scottish primary school where the most valuable skill on offer is how to be an empty vessel making a lot of noise. Maybe our children are all being trained to be the next generation of SNP politicians …. or call centre operatives selling people things they don’t want. Whatever the skills are, they are certainly happening in almost a complete vacuum of content.


    • johnrobertson834 January 6, 2017 / 5:06 pm

      Sorry to hear this. Not my experience in more than 20 years of school visits.


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