“The SNP’s abject failings on education are a threat to opportunity and equality for working people in Scotland” – Jess Phillips Labour MP, tweet on January 13, 2020


THE latest international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores for educational attainment by 15-year-olds show Scotland is well above the global average in reading and Scots teenagers outperform Americans, Russians and Israelis at maths. Under the SNP, the percentage of pupils gaining Higher or Advanced Higher has risen from 50% to 62%.


EVERY three years, PISA, run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), tests 600,000 15-year-old school students in more than 70 countries in basic reading, maths and science. 

It is taken as the gold standard in comparing educational attainment standards. The latest results (for 2018) were published in December 2019. All four UK nations were tested and reported separately.

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Despite lurid headlines (“Sturgeon left humiliated by Scotland’s education results” – Daily Express, December 4, 2019) the actual PISA results for Scotland put the country either above or in line with OECD rich nation standards, and even indicated improvements in reading scores.

In reading, Scottish pupils scored 504 points – a rise from the 493 attainted in the last test in 2015. This puts Scotland in the same league as Japan (504), England (505), Norway (499) and Germany (498). It is also well above the OECD rich country average of 487 and significantly better than France (493), Netherlands (485), Switzerland (484) and Italy (476). In no reasonable sense can this be called “a failure” of Scottish education.

It is true that a narrow band of countries score significantly higher on reading ability, for instance China (555) and Finland (520). There are reasons to doubt the Chinese results on grounds of schools being selected for testing in richer urban areas. The Finnish results are more interesting given that Finland has pioneered the more creative, holistic approach to early education, similar to the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in Scotland. 

The CfE has been attacked as the reason for Scotland’s supposedly “poor” PISA attainments – Finland’s experience suggests otherwise.

In maths, Scotland scored 489 points, a dip of two points since 2015. This dip is not statistically significant. For reference, 489 is also the OECD rich country attainment average for maths. While it might be a criticism that Scotland is average for maths, it is hardly indicative of systemic failure. Scotland is still ahead of Russia (488), the United States (478) and Israel (463) in maths – all nations with a significant scientific and technological record. 

The National:

Note also that the domestic attainment gap in Scotland between maths scores of the poorest and wealthiest pupils has reduced from 87 to 83 points.

In science, Scotland scored 490, down seven points which is statistically significant but still slightly above the OECD average of 489. It is also the same score as Norway. England also saw a fall in its science score though averaged 507. Again, it is possible to argue Scotland should do better, but it is certainly not legitimate to say this score represents existential failure.


THE PISA scores are a snapshot of attainment at age 15 only. The real test of an education system is how it turns out pupils at the end of secondary education – the numbers successfully achieving relevant qualifications and going on to jobs, university or college. Here Scotland scores well.

The percentage of Scottish school pupils leaving with SCQF Level 6 (Higher) or 7 (Advanced Higher) passes rose steadily from 50.4% in 2009/10 to 62.2% in 2017/19. While there are year-to-year variations in Higher pass rates (they dipped in 2019), the overall trend in the percentage of pupils attaining 
Level 6 and 7 qualifications is upward. On any reasonable grounds, that is progress.

Another obvious benchmark is the proportion of secondary pupils completing S6. This has risen from 54.9% in 2009/10 to 62.7% in 2017/19. The percentage of leavers from Scottish state schools going on to university or further education was 55.9% in 2007/8 (when the first SNP Government was elected) to 67.6% in 2017/18 – that’s an impressive two-thirds of school leavers going into advanced education.

There remain attainment issues for pupils from the very poorest families. But the Scottish Government has responded to this problem in 2015 by investing an additional £500 million in spending in targeted schools where pupil attainment is at its lowest.


The National:

Jess needs to go back to school when it comes to knowing what is happening north of the Border ...

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