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NICKY MARR: Academic achievement isn’t the be-all and end-all

By Nicky Marr

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Comparing secondaries in different parts of the country purely on the Higher results of their cleverest kids, tells us nothing new, says our columnist.
Comparing secondaries in different parts of the country purely on the Higher results of their cleverest kids, tells us nothing new, says our columnist.

The annual list of Scotland’s top performing schools has been published, and it makes for uncomfortable reading.

There’s little change at the top from last year, but unless you went to one of the top 10, or live within its catchment area and are thinking of selling your house, it’s meaningless.

The Sunday Times league table of best performing schools looks at exam results and ranks schools according to the percentage of the students who attain the apparent ‘gold standard’ of five Highers. But academic achievement isn’t the be-all and end-all. Our businesses and our economy need a range of skills, not just good grades. So why this obsession with exams?

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Comparing secondaries in different parts of the country purely on the Higher results of their cleverest kids, tells us nothing new. Particularly at a time when the Scottish education system is battling against an unfit-for-purpose SQA, pupil attendance at record lows, pupil mental health issues at record highs, teacher shortages, woeful budgets, lack of support for pupils with additional support needs, and school buildings that are spectacularly unfit for purpose.

I’d go so far as to suggest that while those in the top 10 will be delighted, for many of the schools that find themselves towards the bottom of the 347 on the list, the information could be positively harmful for both staff and students, as well as the reputation of the school.

Comparing a huge school in the centre of affluent East Renfrewshire with a tiny rural counterpart in the west Highlands is about as useful as comparing bread with beer. Each contains the same basic ingredients (bar the hops), but the end products are completely different.

Dig a little deeper into the statistics, and a dismaying correlation appears between the percentage of kids leaving with five Highers, and the affluence of an area.

It shouldn’t have been like this. But Scotland’s students were victims of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

When CfE was introduced in 2010, it turned an otherwise well-functioning system on its head. Our daughters started school under one system and were switched midway to the new one. Parents were promised a far rounder education system, which would nurture and encourage the whole child, and deliver success based on their individual ways of learning.

With emphasis on inter-disciplinary learning, one of the stated aims of the 3-18 system was to level out opportunity. It would, we were promised, produce a new generation of successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors, regardless of postcode or parental income.

In theory it sounded fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to populate the future with such wonderfully rounded humans? But we – and they – were sold a turkey.

Where was the emphasis on knowledge? Apparently, with the rise of the internet, knowledge for the sake of knowledge was outdated. Why remember stuff when everything could be Googled?

Our daughters, and every other Scottish child now in their mid-20s, were the guinea pigs for the new curriculum, which was launched with little guidance for teachers, and implemented in different ways in different schools according to the whim of the headteacher.

We now know that CfE, combined with a fall in education budgets, is failing Scotland’s children, and failing them spectacularly.

We weren’t the only country to be seduced by the theory that knowledge was outdated. Sweden and France are finding their educational attainment have fallen too.

And that’s what we should really be looking at. Instead of pitting Scottish schools against each other, let’s draw back the camera lens and see how we compete on a global scale.

When I was at school, Scotland’s education system was the envy of the world. Today, we rank below scores of countries in terms of literacy, maths and science, including England, China, Korea, Finland, and The Netherlands.

Blaming Covid only goes so far. We all had that. How can we make this better?

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