Scottish teenagers received their exam results this week and, for the seventh consecutive year, the pass-rate for Highers increased. So did the pass-rates for all other exams: the Advanced Highers success rate marched past 82 per cent while a scarcely credible 98.9 per cent of all Standard Grade exams were passed.
Cue the annual debate over grade inflation and dumbing down. Actually, the best academic evidence (compiled by Durham University researchers) suggests grade inflation, while real, is less of an issue in Scotland than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom.
It also distracts attention from the real issue. Which remains that far too many children in far too many parts of the country leave school without having had a proper shot at realising their potential.
Like most data on education, international comparisons need to be treated with some caution. Nevertheless the general picture is clear. Scotland, like England, performs averagely. Not dreadfully but averagely. By OECD standards we are mid-table. The problem is that while Scottish scores have neither significantly improved nor declined this century, other countries are catching up. Globally, of course, this is good news.
Still, the educational divides in this country should be a front-page scandal. As I wrote in yesterday’s Scotsman:
The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation splits the country, by postcode, into five tiers ranked on their level of relative deprivation. Scottish government figures reveal that in 2011, a mere 220 pupils from the bottom quintile (known as SIMD20 neighbourhoods) achieved three A grade passes at Higher level. A mere 58 pupils from the poorest 20 per cent of postcodes achieved five As. Almost no Scots from the most deprived backgrounds, therefore, achieved the exam results that would have given them a chance of studying at Britain’s most competitive and prestigious universities.
This is not educational inequality so much as a form of educational apartheid. There are many good schools in Scotland and international comparisons suggest that Scotland’s pupils perform at the OECD average. The well-respected Pisa tests, however, confirm that despite rising exam results domestically, Scotland’s position relative to the international competition remains average. In fact Scotland’s results are much the same as those reported from England. That is, they lag some way behind countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Finland and Hong Kong.
These test results, however, mask vast internal inequalities. As Gil Wyness, an education researcher at the London School of Economics, observed this week, the richest quarter of Scottish pupils performed at a level comparable with the average score in high-achieving Hong Kong but the poorest quartile’s results were on a par with low-achieving Turkey. The Scottish government’s own analysis of the 2009 Pisa tests concluded that “while socio-economic status is as likely as in other countries to affect students, the effect it has is likely to be greater than in other countries.” Which is another way of saying that it is better to be poor in other countries than it is to be poor in Scotland.
Many, perhaps most, Scottish pupils do respectably well. They work hard and have earned their examination successes. Nevertheless, the vast gulf between outcomes for the rich and poor should be considered a national disgrace. It cripples opportunity and squanders lives. An examination system that grants prizes to everyone may struggle to win respect, but a system that, effectively, excludes the poorest from even competing for prizes merits contempt.
The annual focus on exam results and fretting about grade inflation risks missing the point. International comparisons suggest Scotland’s education system is holding its own but no more than that. Moreover, by the time teenagers are sitting national exams it is often too late. At the age of 15, the bottom 20 per cent of children demonstrate reading levels more than two years behind the top 20 per cent. The rot sets in early.
Whole thing here. Of course, applying to Oxford or St Andrews is not the only measurement of educational success. Nevertheless it is a useful one and the sorry truth is that almost no pupils from the poorest postcodes have a realistic chance of going to the country’s most competitive universities. This is not the universities’ fault.
We know the present system is inadequate because it is being replaced by the new Curriculum for Excellence. This is an ambitious reform but one wonders whether changing the curriculum is quite enough or whether greater structural reforms might be needed…