Ruth Davidson’s chaotic attack on school standards is ignorant



The Scotsman today allows Ruth to emerge from the shadows with an ill-informed anecdotal rant attacking the Curriculum for Excellence in Scottish Schools. It’s an almost entirely evidence-free critique other than a single reference to unreliable international comparisons:

‘Time to end the chaos in the classroom. And, no-one has the faintest idea whether the curriculum has actually boosted standards. All we do know, 13 years on, is that Scotland has slipped down the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s league table for attainment and that those nationwide Scottish surveys which the SNP has not yet abolished show a fall in literacy and numeracy standards among children in both primary and early secondary school. ‘

The problem for Ruth is that international comparisons like those undertaken by OECD or PISA are utterly unreliable estimates and meaningless across different cultures. Indeed, some of the more successful systems, in terms of these measures, have been described as forms of child abuse. If interested, you’ll find a fuller explanation of this at:

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

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 OECD or 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 in 2016, 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:

Reading 72%

Writing 81%

Mathematics 68%

Now I know that 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 2016 pupil-teacher ratios for the four UK areas:

  • Wales: 18.6/1
  • Northern Ireland: 17.6/1
  • England: 17.4/1
  • Scotland: 13.7/1

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.

Finally, real gaps in attainment within a country are, to me, far more significant than unreliable suggestions of gaps between countries. Evidence of progress in Scotland, in reducing these, can be found at:

SNP Government increases teacher numbers to create far superior pupil/teacher ratios and much smaller attainment gaps than in England



Wales: or

Scotland: or

Northern Ireland: or

9 thoughts on “Ruth Davidson’s chaotic attack on school standards is ignorant

  1. William Henderson January 10, 2018 / 12:23 pm

    I wonder – Is there anyone left who actually believes the Ruth and her neocon backers give a twopenny damn about the state of childrens’ education?

    My take on this is that their only real interest is in how to access and cream off some of the huge sum of public money in education for their own gain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ludo Thierry January 10, 2018 / 4:00 pm

    Hi John – visiting the blog at a more civilised hour today (taking a couple of days as holiday). It is bad enough El Coronel sounding off without taking the trouble to check the evidence but it looks like the beeb might have been pulling another of their stunts yesterday as well.

    Don’t know if you heard the piece yesterday (I heard it on radio Jockland and on one of the UK beeb radios – not sure if was r5 or r4) interviewing the guy who had apparently fallen and hurt his ankle and attended A+E. He was advised there would be a wait so he walked out (not prepared to wait to be seen – Why didn’t he wait? – was a question that wasn’t asked by the beeb interviewer)). Ankle continued painful and he returnned to A+E one week later (Why hadn’t he made enquiries to alternative Primary Care Services in the interim? Why attend A+E for a 1 week old injury (that is not the purpose of A+E)? – were questions the interviewer neglected to pose). Anyway – he himself reported that was seen and treated within 3.5hrs and a fracture to ankle identified and treated.

    Now – the story struck me as a pretty weak attack on the usual SNP BAAAAAAAD front – but pretty typical of the beeb’s coverage over the Festive Season Scottish NHS (NON) ‘crisis’.

    However – 2 alert readers on Wings over Scotland site have done a bit of digging. I happily confess to not doing Facebook or similar – but these alert readers have found some interesting info potentially related to this story. See the posts copied below:

    1. harry mcaye says:
    10 January, 2018 at 11:48 am
    Mr Broken Foot, aka Allen Browne, from yesterday’s BBC Scotland feature is on facebook (Ally Browne, Edinburgh) and if you scroll down a bit you’ll find a cartoon depicting Nicola Sturgeon as a jobby (Nicola Turdgeon, ho ho!) and among his photos, as well as confirmation that it is the same guy, you’ll find “Still Naw” and the union flag. How the BBC tracked him down is one of life’s mysteries

    1. HandandShrimp says:
    10 January, 2018 at 2:50 pm
    I saw a suggestion that the chap complaining about his ankle is an SiU member. It is certainly the case that there is a chap with the same name that appears to be part of the Andrew Skinner SiU set.
    If it is the same person, and they may not be, are the BBC complicit?

    This has potential hallmarks of, yet another, beeb ‘news’ Dept. set-up. I’ll await any further developments in the story with interest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alasdair Macdonald January 10, 2018 / 9:21 pm

    I am pleased to see that your view of PISA and TIMSS is the same as mine – very unreliable.

    I remember – probably, about 20 years ago, when we first began to get such data – looking into the methodology and deciding that this was of no great significance from an educational research and development perspective. However, it was an obvious means of control over schools. The Directorate in the council for which I worked took to it like a duck to water, because it enabled them to blame schools and to force them into compliance. Evidence of the poor methodology was brushed aside with the comment that ‘this is a league table and we are doing badly’. It was an assertion, and a pretty feeble one, that was NOT TO BE CHALLENGED.

    This was the time of Education, Education, Education, which to a fair extent was a continuation of the Tory agenda (based on the myth of ‘failing schools’ in England, which Labour disgracefully continued with the continued appointment of Mr Chris Woodhead – a most nasty and vindictive, autocratic person.) and this, in turn, stemmed from Mr James Callaghan’s Cambridge speech c1978.

    The whole argument was really about the reintroduction of selection and the privatisation of schools, which to a substantial extent has taken place in England. The big weapon was the opting out, and apart from an episcopal primary school in Dunblane and two schools on the verge of closure, this was a complete failure in Scotland. When Paisley Grammar school’s opting out failed despite Andrew Neil’s Sunday Times and Mrs Thatcher’s shameful intervention, the policy was dead in Scotland. An absolute majority of the Paisley parents voted to remain within the Council run system.

    Since then, THE COLONEL and her cronies with the media being cheerleaders (Private schools are always described as ‘top schools’) and with the self-defeating help of the teacher unions, the card of ‘indiscipline’ is played again and again and again….. Whenever there is a pay claim by teachers or any attempt at making them more accountable (as opposed to ‘blaming them’) or if there are significant changes such as ‘inclusion’ (that really brought out the latent fascist is a fairly big minority of teachers) the ‘classroom chaos’ is trotted out. And it is one of these arguments, like assertions of bullying that are not allowed to be challenged by evidence. They are right because they cannot be other than right – ‘statistics can prove anything’!!!!!!!!!!

    Most parents when asked, generally, have a pretty good opinion of the schools their children attend and happily refute allegations about its failings, but, they believe them about other schools! And the parents in these other schools defend these schools, but condemn another other group. So, THE COLONEL’s fiction is falls on welcoming ears. However, when the proposed policies mean their own school will be affected, the parents who nod and say, “You know, Ms Davidson has a point”, also say “Bugger off Tory Girl and leave OUR school in peace”.

    Parents and pupils are the best defenders of their own schools. The fifth column is the fairly sizeable minority of teachers. By and large, the EIS, as an organisation, is pretty savvy about comprehensives and the public education system, when it adopts a strong professional, pedagogical perspective as it has done since 1848. It is when it puts on its trade union hat that we get the loudmouths ca’in the feet from the successes of the system and these successes are many.

    Labour 1997/2010 actually had a lot of good policies in education, not least the emphasis on early years and support for inclusive education. In many ways, people will look back and say that it was a pretty golden period. However, they failed to make the arguments and did things by stealth, so that many of the good things they instituted did not become hegemonic. We saw this in health and social security, in international development and so on. They wrote to try to appease the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express who offered them columns regularly Gordon Brown and Paul Dacre were a mutual appreciation society. Because Labour failed to make the arguments, when Messrs Cameron and Clegg and the posh boys (and they were mainly white boys) came in, they were able, pretty effortlessly to roll back the changes ….. in England. We were saved because the SNP won in 2007. Wales was saved because the Assembly was Labour. Northern Ireland was saved because of Martin McGuinness and SF. All three were saved, partly because they all have some sense of being ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Irish’.

    I do not think THE COLONEL’s recorded message from the 1970s will find fertile ground here, but with Labour’s MSPs being so untalented and vindictive, things could change. After all, Kezia Dugdale thinks many of our pupils are ‘illiterate’.


  4. Ludo Thierry January 10, 2018 / 10:39 pm

    Hi Alasdair – It is great to get such comprehensive info straight from the ‘chalk-face’. Mighty interesting and helps inform the debate.

    Naturally – One suspects that the types of schoos in Scotland that really interest The Hon. Col. are as follows:

    1. Fees — Fettes College
    Session 2017/2018. The fees noted below are per TERM. There are three terms per year. Fees are reviewed annually. Senior School. Boarders – £11,160 per term

    2. George Watson’s College: Annual senior day school fees: £10,983

    3. Gordonstoun; (Note: Like Fettes – fees are so eye-watering they are quoted by the ‘term’ – so multiply by 3 – the smaller fee is for Day Attendance, the larger for Boarders);
    Years 12 & 13, direct entry £12,303 £9,113

    Not content with these fees there are also the dreaded ‘chargeable extras’! (see below):
    Chargeable extras include uniform costs, travel, individual music lessons, additional tuition, extra-curricular excursions, external exam fees, purchases from the school shop and stationery store. Uniform is obtained through the School shop, which includes a “nearly new” section.

    Nice to see the School Shop at Gordonstoun includes a ‘Nearly New’ school uniform section. That must certainly help to widen access one imagines.

    It truly is another world, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alasdair Macdonald January 11, 2018 / 11:02 am

    Ludo, It is useful to see these figures regarding costs.

    The parents are NOT buying a ‘better’ education, they are buying access and privilege and the more honest among them will acknowledge that. When we see the level of ‘investment’ by these parents in their children – and the costs are actually less than they ought to be, because of the rates exemption – it is obvious why they support practices which ensure that their children’s advantage is maintained, and, under austerity, enhanced.

    There is, in fact substantial data on attainment which has been collated for many years by, amongst other, the University of Warwick. When the final degree levels of students who attended private schools and those who attended comprehensives are compared on the basis of equal end of school qualifications, those from comprehensives attain higher grades of degrees.

    The University of Stirling compiled a database of a wide range of factors which are thought to affect the levels of attainment of children – e.g. family income, educational level of mothers, gender, index of deprivation for areas, etc. and were able to derive weightings on how each of these impacted on a school’s examination results. The researchers then applied these weightings to all of Scotland’s schools based on the social data appropriate to each and then recalculated the examination outcomes taking these into account. The ‘performance’ of almost every one of Scotland’s 350+ secondaries were the same,. within statistical limits. There were a few schools which fell outside of these limits, some performing ‘better’ and others performing ‘more poorly’. However, on looking at these few schools specifically, the ‘poorer performers’ were not all schools in ‘more deprived’ areas – some were – and the ‘higher performers’ were not all schools from ‘affluent’ areas – some were. However, there was no consistent pattern.

    The key factor is that almost all schools were doing pretty well by their pupils. So, choice of school does not really matter.

    If the parents who send their children to private schools – and I think they are sincerely well-meaning and I am not condemning them – sent their children to their local school, it is likely they would attain the same level of qualifications. Indeed, I think tht the presence of their children in the schools would enhance the schools and their children would benefit from the range of children they would meet. The schools would also benefit from having members of a parent body who ‘know their way around’ the system. The parents would save money and, I suspect, they would press government for better funding of schools.

    THE COLONEL was educated within the public system and attended a comprehensive. Why does she not reflect on that?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. johnrobertson834 January 11, 2018 / 1:15 pm

    Great contributions to this thread Alasdair and Ludo. Thoroughly enhanced!


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