Why Scotland’s supposed decline in School Science performance according to Pisa is really a good sign

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Ah Hah!  SNP fails pupils!

Much hay has been made by opposition politicians and their media platforms, of Scottish education’s recent Pisa score for Science. It fell 7 points leaving it behind that of England and ‘only’ just around the OECD average. In the BBC Scotland report last December, we read these outrageous comments from their sponsors:

Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the maths and science results were a “humiliation” for the SNP government.

She said: “These two areas are so critical to the success of much of Scotland’s modern economy. We should be doing so much better.”

Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray said the “small improvement” in reading was welcome but further falls in maths and science were “alarming”.

He said: “John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon have been warned again and again that we have a problem with STEM subjects being squeezed out of the curriculum but they refuse to listen.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said called the results “appalling”.

“Scotland used to have one of the best education systems in the world but under the SNP it’s now just average,” he said.


The BBC report does acknowledge, but only briefly and in passing, the reservations many critics have of Pisa. In fact, no credible academic uses the Pisa scores and a report from Oslo University in 2018 describes curricula based on the tests for science as likely to be damaging for the kind of science education scientists themselves want to see and which the world needs:

‘The most problematic finding for science education is that PISA-scores correlate negatively with nearly all aspects of inquiry-based science teaching (IBSE), the kind of teaching that is recommended by scientists as well as science educators.’

The central concern here is that scientists and science educators agree that inquiry-based or experimental activity is what leads to pupils developing the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to become actual scientists, who take science beyond what is already known, but the Pisa scoring encourages the passive acquisition of what is already known so that it can be regurgitated in a test. Pisa is bad for science.


Now, I’m limited here, but on a cursory investigation of guidelines, I can see that inquiry-based learning seems to have a central place in the Scottish curriculum:

What skills will my child develop? Learning in the sciences will enable your child to:

  • develop curiosity and understanding of the environment and their place in the living, material and physical world
  • demonstrate a secure knowledge and understanding of the big ideas and concepts of the sciences
  • develop skills for learning, life and work
  • develop the skills of scientific inquiry and investigation using practical techniques
  • develop skills in the accurate use of scientific language, formulae and equations
  • apply safety measures and take necessary actions to control risk and hazards
  • recognise the impact science makes on their life, the lives of others, on the environment and in society
  • recognise the role of creativity and inventiveness in the development of science
  • develop an understanding of the Earth’s resources and the need for responsible use of them
  • express opinions and make decisions on social, moral, ethical, economic and environmental issues, based upon sound understanding
  • develop as a scientifically-literate citizen with a lifelong interest in science
  • establish the foundation for more advanced learning and future careers in science and technology​.


Perhaps we might welcome this resistance to useless rote-learning just to score points?

I’d share this with Liz, Iain and Willie but I feel sure it’s a bit above their reading level.

Published by johnrobertson834

Retired Professor of Media Politics Not-for-profit independent political analysis

3 thoughts on “Why Scotland’s supposed decline in School Science performance according to Pisa is really a good sign

  1. In 1929, the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote about what he decried as ‘inert ideas’:

    “Theoretical ideas should always find important applications within the pupil’s curriculum. This is not an easy doctrine to apply, but a very hard one. It contains within itself the problem of keeping knowledge alive, of preventing it from becoming inert, which is the central problem of all education.”.

    Hear we are, nearly a hundred years later and still putting overwhelming emphasis on ‘knowing the facts’.

    Indeed, even earlier, in the 19th Century, in “Hard Times”, Dickens created the character, Gradgind:
    “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

    This what PISA and SATs and all these other pub quiz type of examinations are about. What PISA, et al are about is to provide an instrument of BLAME. Blaming is the raison d’etre of our media, and many of our politicians. Because we all know, don’t we, that once we have blamed somebody the problem has been solved. Wee Wuggie and The most boring man in the world Gray and silly mid-off Liz Smith are all blamers.

    Is there not a FACT about empty vessels and noise?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Partly, the ‘blame agenda’ came in because the teacher unions, at the behest of large numbers of members, opposed any kind of accountability and of addressing issues of competence. In addition, during the industrial action in the 1980s – which I supported – there was the ill-advised ’embargo on curriculum development’ – which I strongly opposed, because, curriculum development was an essential part of the claim to be a profession. By vacating this key area teachers left an area into which the government, via the inspectorate and others, moved in and imposed not just WHAT was taught, but also HOW it was to be taught, and the testing regime.

        There then followed continual gripes about ‘workload’ and ‘paperwork’ and ‘excessive prescription’. Much of this was justified, but it was a consequence of the abandonment of responsibility for developing the curriculum, for deciding how it was to be taught and for refusing to devise appropriate methods of assessing what was being taught.

        When the Minister, Mr Peter Peacock around 1999, launched the Curriculum for Excellence, he was offering a restoration of the ‘professionalism’ which teacher unions were claiming had been lost and offering the chance to ‘declutter’ the curriculum, in return for a very substantial pay award in reductions in hours, teachers, took the money, but then demanded that the Government ‘just tell us what to do and we will do it’!

        Now, of course, many teachers were involved in the development of curriculum materials and of devising teaching approaches, in devising appropriate assessment methods. They and many other colleagues had continued to honour their professional duties since the actions of the 1980s, but, self-defeatingly, they also supported actions to protect the substantial minority of freeloaders, chances and incompetents (possibly as much as 15% of the teaching force), they failed to support teaching ancillaries’ jobs so that money could go to them.

        Now, teaching is no more culpable of this self-protection than the health services, social work, policing, legal services, journalism, financial services, etc.

        We do need the people in these services to be the principal determiners of how their jobs are to be done, within the framework of the law on these areas. But, we also need them to be publicly accountable in terms of what outcomes are set out in law. They should be involved in the public consultations about what the legal framework and accountability mechanisms should be, but they have no more power in this regard than the general public. As a non health professional, for example, I have the right to participate in the discourse about what we want from health services. I will pay heed to what nurses and doctors and others say, respecting their knowledge and expertise, but they have only one vote in the matter like everyone else.

        So, we need to give professionals respect, but they do not have a veto, nor should we allow them to blackmail us.

        In last Sunday’s National, Mr Gerry Hassan, in a thoughtful piece, argued much the same.

        Liked by 1 person

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