You might remember my earlier criticisms of the PISA school attainment test results which Reporting Scotland and the other Unionist media used to attack the Scottish Government – they’re utterly unreliable estimates and meaningless across different cultures.
However, you can reasonably compare Scotland with quite similar educational systems in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. These comparisons become more useful if you can, unlike PISA, use large representative samples or even better complete national results. See this for England in January 2016:
‘Almost half of English Primary School students failing to make the grade, says report.’
The above Guardian headline, slightly exaggerated, was based on a study by the CentreForum think-tank and the Education Data Lab research body. On page five we see that only 58.5% hit the target set for reading, writing and mathematics. I wondered how it managed to be exactly the same percentage across all three subjects but that’s what it says. Here are the Scottish equivalent percentages reaching the targets:
Now I know we are not comparing exactly like-for-like here but the two educational systems’ key concepts and standards in core subjects are unlikely to differ much given the cultural similarities, extensive history of collaboration and research over decades.
Why are the Scottish results better? I can’t say for certain of course because educational outcomes are affected by so many factors that it’s almost impossible to pin down the causes of any change. However, there is one factor which governments can control, which virtually every expert recognises is likely to play a large part and that is the pupil-teacher ratio. The more teachers you have per child the more attention each child should get and rather obviously the better they should do. A very large, in-depth English study in 2000-2003 (CSPAR) was reported in a UK government report and this concluded on p.55:
‘The CSPAR study found statistically significant gains for smaller classes for all ability groups in both literacy and mathematics.’
Here are the pupil-teacher ratios for the four UK areas:
Northern Ireland: 17.6/1
Again, I know these ratios are not evidence of actual class sizes (head teachers regularly adjust these to suit ongoing circumstances) but it’s reasonable to assume that Scottish schools will be using these additional staff members either to reduce typical class sizes directly or to increase team-teaching, flexibly, within classes, with the same effect of increasing attention-levels for each pupil.
Once more, you’d never know any of this if all you watch is Reporting Scotland and read the Scottish newspapers.
Wales: firstname.lastname@example.org or http://wales.gov.uk/statistics-and-research/schoolscensus/?skip=1&lang=en
Scotland: email@example.com or http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Statistics/Browse/SchoolEducation
Northern Ireland: firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.deni.gov.uk/index/facts-and-figuresnew/education-statistics.htm