The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years, assesses the skills of 15 year olds in 72 countries in reading, maths and science. The results for the most recent assessments, undertaken two years ago in March 2015, were published this morning. The figures for Scotland do not make comfortable reading – but they do reinforce the need for the reforms to our school system that are now underway.
While they show that Scotland's scores are similar to the OECD average in all three areas tested, they also show that compared to 2012, our performance in science and reading has fallen. In science and maths we are now below the levels at which we performed in 2006, and more countries have outperformed Scotland in all three areas than at any time since PISA began.
The results show that closing the poverty-related attainment gap is a complex challenge which is not unique to Scotland. The welcome improvements in performance of young people from deprived backgrounds, which we saw in the previous results between 2009 and 2012, have been maintained. However, there is still a gap between pupils from the least and most disadvantaged backgrounds – around three years' worth of schooling according to the OECD.
Pupils in Scotland are generally more positive about the value of learning science at school than is the case across the OECD. Classroom disruption is generally lower than average, and relationships with teachers more positive. Those relationships are crucial to improving outcomes.
The results are consistent with the 2014 Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN), published in April 2015, which told us we needed to do more to make our education system among the best in the world.
Since that survey was published we have set out, and are pursuing, a range of actions to improve Scottish education.
If anyone was in any doubt about the need for the reforms which we have introduced and the improvements on which we are currently consulting, these results should dispel that doubt.
These reforms are based on the 2015 review of education in Scotland carried out by the OECD – the same body which runs the PISA assessments published today. The OECD's policy review was commissioned by the Scottish Government. Its purpose was to inform the ongoing development of education policy, practice and leadership in Scotland, by providing an independent review of the direction of the Curriculum for Excellence.
In its review report, published this time last year, the OECD said that Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was 'an important reform' that was the right approach for Scotland. The OECD said we had got the design right but that we needed to take further steps to secure the benefits of this new approach in all parts of the country.
The report went on to make a number of recommendations on how we should proceed. I want to focus on five of the key recommendations made by the OECD – and how our response to those recommendations is driving the reform that is needed to improve education in Scotland.
1. A more detailed measurement system
The OECD report said that 'there needs to be a more robust evidence base right across the system, especially about learning outcomes and progress'.
That is precisely why we have developed the National Improvement Framework and standardized assessments for children in P1, P4, P7 and S3 to support teachers' professional judgements. This will provide us with a complete picture of how our children are progressing with their learning – covering the full range of school years – so that we can see that progress at national, local authority and school levels. It will allow us to plan targeted interventions to tackle the attainment gap between children from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds.
Next week, we will launch the first ever national improvement plan for education, based on the widest range of performance information ever gathered on Scottish education as part of the National Improvement Framework.
It is also why we have committed to providing teachers with benchmarks on assessing children's progress. These benchmarks will set out with absolute clarity the standards that are envisaged within the curriculum. This is not to constrain teacher professionalism or to create a series of boxes to tick. It is to provide a tool which will be of genuine use in classrooms, will help ensure consistency in the judgments which teachers make and substantially reduce the bureaucratic burden carried by the teaching profession.
2. Schools and communities at the heart of the education system
Secondly, the OECD also said that CfE needs to be 'a dynamic, highly equitable curriculum being built constantly in schools, networks and communities with a key role for a strengthened middle'.
That is why we have launched a wide ranging review of education governance to gather views from parents, pupils and professionals on how education – from early years to secondary school level – should be run. At the heart of the governance review is the presumption that decisions about children's learning and school life should be made at school level.
3. Strengthen professional leadership
The governance review also responds to a third key OECD recommendation around the need to strengthen professional leadership. We have invested in leadership capacity in our schools by establishing and funding the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, who have delivered a new Qualification for Headship which is fully funded by the Scottish Government. The Government will take forward further measures to enhance leadership and professional development within education.
4. Focus on closing the attainment gap and raising standards for all
A fourth area covered by the OECD report was the need to be rigorous in our focus on closing the attainment gap for our poorest pupils. That is why we have launched and subsequently expanded the £750 million Scottish Attainment Challenge and taken the lead in showcasing the best practice in closing the attainment gap.
We have also announced plans to double the free entitlement to Early Learning and Childcare to 1,140 hours per year by 2020. This will help narrow the 'vocabulary gap', which can be up to 13 months by the time a child starts primary school, and help ensure all children arrive at school ready to learn.
5. Simplify and clarify the curriculum
Finally, the OECD advised that we take steps to simplify and clarify the curriculum. In response to this recommendation, in August this year we published a definitive statement on CfE and benchmarks for literacy and numeracy. The statement sets out what every teacher needs to do in order to achieve the potential of CfE. These definitive documents will provide clarity, and replace thousands of pages of advice, guidance and case studies that had created a cluttered landscape.
We have also announced changes to National Qualifications which will address the burden of over-assessment for young people and teachers as part of a relentless drive that I am leading to reduce red tape and ensure teachers are freed up to teach.
As well as responding to the OECD's recommendations, the Government has also taken a range of measures to drive improvement in the areas of reading, maths and science in the period since the PISA assessments were undertaken in 2015 and the publication of their results today.
We have launched the Read, Write, Count campaign;
we established the Making Maths Count Group, which recently published the report of its findings and recommendations to boost mathematics achievement in Scotland;
we are currently consulting on a strategy to raise levels of enthusiasm for and knowledge about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; and
the First Minister launched her Reading Challenge to promote and support reading for pleasure among P4 to P7 pupils.
One of my early actions on taking up office as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills was to establish an International Council of Education Advisors.
Professor Andy Hargreaves, one of the International Advisers and a member of the OECD Review Team who visited Scotland in 2015, has said that he is 'very impressed with the richness and boldness of the Scottish curriculum, the confidence of Scottish learners, the professionalism of the country's teachers, and the collective will to do even better to provide equitable opportunities and outcomes for all young people'.
Others have commended our belief in continuous improvement, our foresight and our patience in relation to education. Those are qualities which are much needed now. These highly regarded experts from a range of countries across the world are credible independent voices. They are not describing an education system in crisis. They are describing a system which is striving to meet significant challenges but one which is also well placed to do so.
Yesterday afternoon I held a teleconference with several of our International Advisors to discuss the latest set of PISA results. They recognized that the challenges faced by Scotland are not unique; a great many other countries are having to reflect on deteriorations in their PISA results, particularly in relation to science. However, the unanimous advice I received from our international advisors was to remain focused on taking forward the careful plans that we formulated in response to the SSLN data as part of our journey of reform. I consider that to be sound advice and I intend to follow it.
The Government's plans for reform were set out in the Delivery Plan – 'Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education' – which was published in June following the national Education Summit.
This programme is bold, ambitious and, in parts, controversial. A strength of Scotland's education system has always been in collaboration, a sense of national shared endeavour, but we must now be clear: reform is required.
This data reinforces the case for radical change that the Government is determined to pursue.