From stewartb:

So once again the media in Scotland – notably the public service broadcaster – exploits this thing called ‘PISA’ (Programme for International Student Assessment) to condemn Scotland’s education system. I am no educationalist but enough of an ‘alert’ reader/listener to suspect that there may be more to this than we are being fed. What follows is a ‘long read’ but I think you’ll find it revealing!


I was prompted to research this by a post on Talking Up Scotland ( I wanted to find out more about Stephen Curran, the ‘expert’ guest of BBC Scotland on 29 February. And helpfully I found this in the Times Education Supplement (TES).


Mr Curran argues here that the Scottish education system’s “reputation came crashing down when the … (PISA) ratings were published late last year.” He states that Scotland’s attainment in maths and science had taken “another dive” and moreover the PISA scores “… should be a wake-up call to everyone in the UK education system who advocates progressive education.” Keep “crashing down”,  “dive” and this threat from the ‘progressive’ in mind as you read on!

Mr Curran makes much of educational reforms introduced in England by Michael Gove. He appears to link England’s recent PISA scores to the perceived success of these reforms. And Mr Curran is concerned about us: “Scotland is a great country and I hope for its people that the politicians wake up sooner rather than later about the crisis facing it. And it is a crisis.”  Keep this ‘crisis’ and the impact of Gove’s reforms – based on PISA evidence – in mind as you read on!

And not to risk understating his ‘crisis’, Mr Curran ends with this: “The education of young people is the key to unlocking the future potential of a country and its economy. Get it right and everything else will fall in place – getting it wrong can only lead to stagnation and failure.” Some might take the view that Mr Curran has now quite evidently ‘jumped the shark’!

(As an aside, Mr Curran’s article does have some comic value. He tells us that Curriculum for Excellence: “… is a move away from the more traditional approaches that characterised Scottish education and produced such great minds as Adam Smith, Andrew Neil, Michael Gove, Gordon Brown, Duncan Bannatyne – to name but a few renowned people .…” Now just ponder for a moment –  this ‘expert’ is arguing that Adam Smith (born 1723) and Duncan Bannatyne (born 1949) experienced similar educational systems – now that would be one very conservative, ‘traditional’ system! – and that they can be grouped together based on their ‘renown’!!!)

Let’s now build a counter view on PISA step by step.


This is from the considered writing of Henry Hepburn (4 December, 2019), news editor for the educational weekly newspaper, TES Scotland:


“Every three years, a new round of PISA scores is released into the world. While MANY QUESTION whether the Programme of International Student Assessment should have the level of influence that it does and how reliable the data is, there is no doubt that the results influence government policy. And when things go badly, that they become AMMUNITION to use against governments.” (my emphasis)  But Mr Hepburn’s ‘many question’ caution is putting it mildly!


Adverse criticism of PISA goes back some time. The Guardian on 6 May 2014 published an open letter to the OECD under this headline:

‘OECD and PISA tests are damaging education worldwide – academics: In this letter to Dr Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, academics from around the world express deep concern about the impact of PISA tests and call for a halt to the next round of testing’

The link below has the full text of the letter: it is worth visiting to check out the list of ‘expert’ signatories – extensive and impressive: I suggest ‘weighing’ this against BBC Scotland’s guest Mr Curran’s credentials for declaring “yes it is a crisis” based on PISA scores.


In a lengthy, damning critique, the letter states: “We assume that OECD’s PISA experts are motivated by a sincere desire to improve education. But we fail to understand how your organisation has become the global arbiter of the means and ends of education around the world. OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning. As PISA has led many governments into an international competition for higher test scores, OECD has assumed the power to shape education policy around the world, with no debate about the necessity or limitations of OECD’s goals. We are deeply concerned that measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”

The signatories also contend: “These developments (ones arising from PISA) are in overt conflict with widely accepted principles of good educational and democratic practice:

  • No reform of any consequence should be based on a single narrow measure of quality.
  • No reform of any consequence should ignore the important role of non-educational factors, among which a nation’s socio-economic inequality is paramount.”


In 2016 the TES reported a proponent of this action.


‘Countries should “IGNORE” the world’s most influential education rankings because they fail to measure what matters, an expert on the impact of globalisation on education has claimed. The idea of nations competing to reach the top of the … (PISA) league tables makes as much sense as university students competing to see who can drink the most beer, according to Professor Yong Zhao, from the University of Oregon in the US. He told TES: “You’re maybe the best drinker but you’ve got to think, ‘Is it good for you and does it matter?’”

According to Zhao, PISA homogenises education systems: ’We need creativity, not uniformity’.


The following perspective appeared in Forbes magazine under the headline: ‘PISA Scores Are Out. Ours Are Not Great. So What?’


It seems there is also lot of hand wringing in the US each time the PISA results are published. The author of the article (Peter Greene) argues: ‘PISA coverage tends to overlook one major question—why should anyone care about these scores? Where is the research showing a connection between PISA scores and a nation’s economic, political, or global success? What is the conclusion to the statement, “Because they get high PISA scores, the citizens of [insert nation here] enjoy exceptionally good______” ?’

The author asks: “Did US companies outsource work to India and China because of their citizens’ PISA scores, or because of low wages and loose regulation? Do we have the world’s most expensive health care system because of mediocre PISA scores? Which politicians have ridden to success on the PISA score platform pony? Are any geopolitical conflicts solved by whipping out the contending countries’ PISA scores for comparison? And is there a shred of evidence that raising PISA scores would improve life for US citizens (spoiler alert: no)?”


Closer to home, once upon a time (4th December 2013), the teacher unions in Scotland expressed their views on the status and significance of PISA results.


The EIS and the SSTA urged caution in how these data are viewed.  Whilst both unions believed that PISA data offered “some interesting areas for debate” they added “ITS WORTH IN MEASURING THE VALUE OF ANY COUNTRY’S EDUCATION SYSTEM IS LIMITED”. The unions’ 2013 statement goes on:

“The EIS and the SSTA urge the Scottish Government and Opposition Parties to GLANCE BRIEFLY at this data but continue to concentrate on the development of meaningful curriculum reform in Scotland aimed at the creation of a fair and just society.”

Commenting further, EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan noted at that time, “While this (PISA) report seeks to measure performance in school education there are SIGNIFICANT QUESTIONS OVER THE TESTING METHODS used to gather data and the degree to which like is being compared with like. The circumstances in different countries vary widely, and individual nations take significantly different approaches to education in terms of how schools are organised, funded and run.  There is also concern that, in some countries, a heavy emphasis is placed on preparing pupils to perform well in these tests specifically to boost PISA rankings.”

The Acting General Secretary of the SSTA at the time commented, “These studies have become LITTLE MORE THAN AN INVITATION TO BEAT OURSELVES UP UNNECESSARILY. While the scale of the exercise is immense given the number of nations involved the scope is limited, the focus only on narrow performance outcomes in three areas merely encourages certain nations to concentrate on the rapid ascent of the league tables without reference to the wider exercise of good educational practice. Yet again we are reminded of the need to measure what is valuable not value what is measurable.”

So a question today for the EIS and SSTA leaders, what has changed regarding the status and significance of PISA results since 2013?  Well, on the latest PISA results, the EIS response included (just!) this:


“The analysis of Scotland’s data from the … (PISA), published today, has highlighted the value of Scotland’s comprehensive education system. Data from the PISA survey indicates a SOLID PERFORMANCE overall, with IMPROVEMENT in reading and with results in maths and science HOLDING RELATIVELY STEADY.”  So, has the EIS not noticed the crisis of which Mr Curran writes and broadcasts on BBC Scotland?

The recent EIS statement notes that the PISA survey also “indicates that the gap in performance between the most and least disadvantaged pupils was smaller in Scotland than across the average of other OECD countries – indicating the Scotland’s comprehensive system offers greater equality of opportunity to pupils from all backgrounds.” But, but what about the ‘crisis’ ….?

And finally from the EIS on this: ”It is clear, however, that Scottish Education is actively working on the key elements identified by the OECD as necessary for continued improvement – tackling the impact of deprivation on educational attainment, ensuring high standards of teaching, and being concerned about pupil well-being.”


The TES reported the views of Mark Priestley, professor of education at the University of Stirling.


In a measured contribution to the debate over Scotland’s performance, firstly Professor Priestley is reported as stating: “.. we don’t have the evidence to say whether Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is responsible for the decline or otherwise in PISA results,” This seems in complete contrast to the views of Mr Stephen Curran.

Professor Priestley is reported as adding: ‘Today’s PISA results may have indicated some “slight improvements” in reading, although “maths and science seem to be SITTING MUCH WHERE THEY WERE”. This can’t be right – there is a ‘crisis’, someone on BBC Scotland told me so!

Also in the TES:


Andreas Schleicher, head of the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD – top official for PISA –  is reported as stating that the differences in both education approaches and PISA scores across the UK are marginal when set against the international picture.


Given Curran’s support for a ‘traditional’ approach to education and his endorsement of, and claims of early success for, the Gove reforms in England, it is interesting to note comments on the latest PISA results by the main union in England, the NEU.


Kevin Courtney its Joint General Secretary has said: “The findings from PISA 2018 ….. REFLECT A EDUCATION SYSTEM BEFORE THE MARKET REFORMS introduced by former Education Secretary Michael Gove and pursued by subsequent Secretaries of State.”

He goes on: “Each time the survey is conducted, a larger number of countries take part and therefore THE GLOBAL RANKINGS DO NOT COMPARE LIKE WITH LIKE. In addition, each PISA series focuses on a different learning domain – in 2018 it is reading, in 2015 it was science. The ‘league table’ element of PISA should therefore be TREATED WITH ENORMOUS CAUTION since the rankings are comparing different subjects among a different number of countries.  The OECD also point out that many of the changes in countries’ scores (and therefore their apparent ranking) are NOT STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT. This includes two of the three scores given to the UK.”


In November 2019, the TES reported the NEU teaching union’s joint General Secretary saying this on the impact of educational reforms: “I think we have to be cautious in attributing any reform in any national state, four years later, to a position in a league table, because the position on the league table is not just about the curriculum that’s taught in school or the way children are assessed.”


On PISA results, the General Secretary goes on: “It’s difficult to disentangle how much curriculum has played a part, how much exams and assessment have played a part, how much those parts of education policy actually played a part. I will say however that WHAT IS ABUNDANTLY CLEAR IS THAT GOVE’S DIRECTION OF TRAVEL IS COMPLETELY OPPOSED TO what the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is behind Pisa, is saying about what effective education systems should look like.”

And this view is supported by the OECD’s review of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence in 2015. In this the OECD endorsed the progressive nature of the ongoing process of reform in Scotland’s schools whilst challenging aspects of its implementation.


According to the OECD: “The Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) is an important reform to put in place a coherent 3-18 curriculum. It privileges learning and a holistic understanding of what it means to be a young Scot growing up in today’s world.”


I cannot resist recalling comments in 2016 by a former education spokesperson for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party following the publication of earlier PISA results. Liz Smith MSP was quoted as saying: “These shocking statistics are a damning indictment of A DECADE OF FAILURE under the SNP.”


But then in response to a UCAS report also in 2016 on university admissions, the same politician claimed this: “Despite having OUTSTANDING GRADES, many Scottish students are finding it increasingly difficult to get into universities because of the constraints applied via the capping policy.”


So just to recap, the Tory position seemed to be that: (i) a decade of educational system failure – as evidenced by a set of PISA results, was (ii) delivering outstanding grades, and (iii) had led to an increasing demand for a university education – all at the same time!  Go figure! 

Let’s hope the new Tory spokesperson on education, Mr Jamie Greene MSP can make more coherent contributions to what is a necessarily ongoing debate over continuous improvement in Scotland’s school system.

Ed: OK you can be the prof now!