The latest PISA data, published on 5th December 2023, shows that Scottish education standards have dropped between 2018 to 2022. The downward trend in the standards of Scottish education, as measured by the PISA tests, mirrors trends in Scandinavian countries, France and Quebec.
What all of these countries have in common is the introduction of progressive education models.
In progressive education less emphasis is given to learning core skills in maths, science and reading, less focus on fact-based learning. More emphasis is placed on teaching transferable and work-based skills.
This has been a fashionable idea in education for many decades. The theory being that focussing on learning knowledge isn’t the best way to equip today’s students for future jobs. They can, after all, find information at the click of a button (they can just ‘google it’. So it makes more sense to develop skills that may be of actual use later on in life.
The problem with progressive education theory is that it isn’t based on any evidence. And in fact the statistics suggest that moving away from traditional, knowledge based learning harms children’s education.
In contrast, those countries which have shown the highest levels of improvement between 2018 to 2022, as measured by PISA, have focused on more traditional, knowledge based curriculums.
Comparing England to Scotland is informative here. While Scottish schools have become more progressive, English schools have stayed more focused on teaching core knowledge in maths, science and English. English schools have improved, Scottish schools have regressed.
So is progressive education to blame for declining standards in education?
The data certainly suggests there is a link, but we should always keep in mind that other variables may be the cause. However with Scotland, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Spending per pupil hasn’t decreased and the pupil teacher ratio is better than in England.
What we should be critical of is the validity of the PISA tests. These test a relatively narrow range of skills: precisely the fact based knowledge which is favoured by traditional education.
What might be going on is those children who have had a more progressive education are less well trained at answering narrow PISA based tests. It might even be the case that they are less likely to see the point of them than children who get a more traditional education.
So this drop in the PISA table positions may just mean Scottish children and getting an equal but DIFFERENT type of education to, for example, children in English schools.
It may be that when it comes to employability and the ability to cope with real world, real life situations Scottish and Scandinavian children are better prepared.
The point of a progressive education isn’t to train people to pass knowledge based test, after all. So maybe we shouldn’t be judging the success of education systems on rankings in PISA league tables!
Relevance to A-level sociology
This material is mainly relevant to the sociology of education module.
Sonia Sodha, The Observer, December 2023: Scottish Schools Have Toppled from the Top of the Class. This is What Went Wrong.