In the Herald, SNP warned that giving more power to head-teachers in Sweden “led to declining standards” No it didn’t.

Academics said a recent international example of devolving control to schools in Sweden had resulted in a marked decline in standards. The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) said the Swedish example had resulted in headteachers becoming bogged down with bureaucracy.’

That’s the opening statement in the Herald newspaper today (7.1.17) aimed at undermining SNP policy. As often before, no named academic is prepared to take the rap for this nonsense, the headline is ill-founded and the content is based on no substantive research evidence. What the RSE and the OECD spotted like most other opponents of educational reform was a correlation and not a cause. Yes, Sweden’s fall in PISA tests compared with, especially, its near neighbour Finland, happened around and after a period of greater independence for schools and head-teachers but there has been NO proper research revealing any causal link between the two. Anyhow, the idea that increased financial responsibility for the head teacher will somehow negatively impact on the performance of class teachers is ill-informed. Head teachers are commonly figureheads with real, daily, responsibility for aspects of performance devolved to a number of assistant heads and senior teachers. If somehow, this latter group were to be distracted from their duties, I might accept the potential for damage.

I’ve already explained some of the reasons for the disparity in PISA scores between the culturally similar Finland and Sweden in:

One explanation is that Finnish is written exactly as it is spoken making the development of literacy easier and so releasing time for teaching toward the PISA targets. In the same piece, I explained just how useless PISA scores are anyway. However, I also touched on but could not develop another likely reason. Sweden has ten times the immigration rate of Finland. Like UK schools with non-English speakers, Swedish schools have a significant challenge educating large numbers of pupils for whom Swedish is not their first language. This unavoidably slows the development of these pupils, cuts the time for PISA-related learning and seems likely to have harmed Sweden’s PISA performance. It was a very plausible explanation but not proven. It is now. Research by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren published in Swedish but helpfully translated in the Spectator (I know, not my usual favourite source), shows a much more convincing connection between immigration levels and falling PISA scores. Here’s a quote:

‘Two weeks ago, I published a paper at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics and an op-ed in the largest Swedish daily about the impact of immigration on Sweden’s Pisa scores. Quite a row followed. Why? Well, it turns out that the change in pupil demographics due to immigration explains almost a third of the average decline between 2000 and 2012: 19 per cent in mathematical literacy, 28 per cent in reading literacy, and 41 per cent in scientific literacy. The effect is especially pronounced in recent years, coinciding with accelerating refugee immigration. Indeed, between 2009 and 2012, 43 per cent of the average Pisa score decline is explained by altered demographics: a full 29 per cent in mathematical literacy, 45 per cent in reading literacy, and 62 per cent in scientific literacy. These are strong effects. In fact, the change in pupil demographics is the only factor that we know for sure has contributed to Sweden’s falling scores. Furthermore, the full impact is probably somewhat larger. This is because immigration may also have lowered performance among pupils with a Swedish background, for instance through the redistribution of resources to immigrant pupils.’

In 2012, the average PISA score for Swedish heritage pupils was 500 (down from 521 in 2004) while the score for other (immigrant) pupils was 446 and falling as immigration increased.

Please don’t read this as anti-immigration sentiments. I have no respect for the PISA scores and feel sure there are many social, economic and longer-term cultural benefits from a degree of immigration. My purpose here is to debunk the Herald article and, I’m sure other media coverage, which will make the same ill-informed criticism as part of an anti-SNP agenda.



8 thoughts on “In the Herald, SNP warned that giving more power to head-teachers in Sweden “led to declining standards” No it didn’t.

  1. broadbield January 7, 2017 / 7:14 pm

    The misuse of statistics and the unattributed, unverified and unquestioned reportage of this type undermines and subverts democracy. (or the representative form of government we call democracy, but is nothing of the sort, however, that’s another matter) It misinforms the voters, selling us a perverted version of “reality”, and reduces the discussion to nothing more than propaganda and lies. The journalists and politicians who spout this poison are simply “enemies of the people” as they don’t seek to inform and enlighten but to mislead and create false understandings. I don’t know how some of them sleep at night.


    • Clydebuilt January 8, 2017 / 9:53 am

      Great post Broadbield

      Just heard McKenna saying that the SNP have real difficulties with the Attainment Gap and the NHS so when the party wants to avoid debate on these problems they turn to the Constitution. Why does the National continue with his column? The BBC always introduce him as an Observer columnist.


      • johnrobertson834 January 8, 2017 / 6:16 pm

        Can’t even read his headlines anymore. He’s a mole.


      • Clydebuilt January 8, 2017 / 11:13 pm

        No …..but on wings. Someone claimed NI. NHS was achieving 67.5% of AE patients out the door in 4 hrs…. Claimed it was a NI BBC report ….. Haven’t found anything on it…..

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Legerwood January 9, 2017 / 6:07 pm

    There was a programme on BBC Two last night about schools in South Korea and their PISA scores loomed large. Three pupils from a Welsh School were taken to South Korea to spend 3 days in a South Korean school. Hardly an in depth study but what did emerge did show just how hard the SK students worked, or more accurately, were driven by the system. School day starts at 8 am ends 4.30 then off to a library to study then a crammer till 10.30 pm then back to school for an hour or so. Home by midnight. The SK government had imposed a 10.30 curfew on the crammers.

    The social costs were horrendous. One statistic jumped out :. Suicide is the main cause of death for those in the 15-24 age group in South Korea.

    Something to remember the next time a politician mentions PISA scores. There is more to education than scores.


    • johnrobertson834 January 9, 2017 / 9:13 pm

      Thanks Legerwood. I saw it too. Thought the Welsh reporter was taken in by the whole Korean thing. It’s child abuse.


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