Ministers in Scotland have been accused of keeping parents, pupils and teachers 'in the dark' over how children in primary schools are performing in reading compared to their counterparts in other countries.

The latest results, published today, of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) examined reading skills among around 400,000 pupils across almost 60 countries in 2021. 

But there was no information for children's peformance in Scotland as the Scottish Government pulled out of the survey in 2010.

SNP ministers also withdrew in 2010 from Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Both are globally respected tests that provided an international perspective on Scottish education.

At the time the Scottish Government claimed that the comparisons were too expensive and produced limited data on Scottish education. Critics said it was because they showed performance in Scottish education was declining. 

Primary school children in Singapore were ranked first place with an average score of 587 in the test, while those in Ireland came second with an average score of 577. The country saw its ranking up from fourth when the five-yearly study was last carried out in 2016.

Ireland was followed by Hong Kong (third with an average score of 573), Russia (fourth on 567), Northern Ireland (fifth on 566) and England (sixth on 558). Finland, a long-standing high achiever, was in ninth place while the US ranked in 11th.

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Both parts of Ireland were among a group of 14 countries which examined pupils about six months later than most other jurisdictions for Covid-19 reasons. As a result, the study’s international authors have cautioned that direct comparisons with other countries needed to be made with “great care”.

With pupils in countries who did the tests later omitted from the study, England was ranked in fourth place.

Singapore still scored the highest result, second was Hong Kong followed by Russia in third place. 

First Minister Humza Yousaf has promised to rejoin both the PIRLS and TIMMS studies. But one leading education expert said that even if the Scottish Government signs up again to the former at the earliest opportunity the new results for pupils in Scotland won't be available until around 2027.

Professor Lindsay Paterson, of Edinburgh University, told The Herald: "The strong performance by Northern Ireland and England in the latest PIRLS study reinforces the very welcome decision by Humza Yousaf to take Scotland back into these international studies.

"However,  the earliest date at which data on Scotland can be produced is 2027. In the meantime, Mr Yousaf needs urgently to review ways in which interim data could compare Scotland with countries such as our neighbours in the UK".

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Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Stephen Kerr MSP said: “It is shameful that Scottish schools were removed from rankings like these in the first place.

“This withdrawal was a cowardly, cynical move to save face by the SNP, because Scotland was plummeting down international league tables under their mismanagement.

“No matter how uncomfortable it is for SNP ministers, parents, teachers and pupils deserve to know the standing of Scottish education, not least so that we can learn from other nations which are doing better. But, while those in Northern Ireland, England and the Irish Republic can see how their youngsters are doing, Scottish parents, teachers and pupils have been kept in the dark by the SNP.

“The Scottish Conservatives have long called for our schools to rejoin international comparisons, so we welcomed Humza Yousaf’s U-turn last month.

“Only once we know how far Scotland’s once world-renowned education system has fallen due to SNP blunders, can we set about rebuilding it.”

Scottish Labour's education spokeswoman Pam Duncan-Glancy said: “The SNP’s decision to remove Scotland from these league tables shows they are terrified of accountability.

“Their mismanagement has been disastrous for Scotland’s once world-class schools, but they are trying to mask their failures.

“Humza Yousaf must follow through on his promise to get us back in this league table so we can see how our education system is performing.

“However, because we’ve been out for so long, we won’t see the impact of our return to the tables until around 2027-28.

"The First Minister should start collecting more data in Scotland directly now, because we need to know the scale of the problem if we’re to fix the problems in education.

“Teachers and pupils deserve so much better than this SNP government.”

PIRLS investigates children's reading skills close to the end of primary school, every five years.

First run in 2001, it uses data from a sample of nine and 10-year-old pupils, their parents, their teachers and head teachers.

Scotland continues to participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment, another global study.

UK Schools minister Nick Gibb said his Government’s reforms – such as a focus on phonics, which teaches children to read using sounds – were behind England’s successful performance despite disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic. The technique is also used in Scottish schools.

In the 2016 rankings, England came joint 8th place out of 50 countries.

The last Scottish report from PIRLS related to data from the year 2006, and the last from TIMSS was for data from 2007.

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth said: “The First Minister announced that Scotland will apply to join the next cycles of PIRLS in 2026 – providing information on attitudes in reading and development of reading literacy of our 9 year olds and TIMSS in 2027 - providing an assessment of Maths and Science achievement of our 9 and 13 year olds. We continue to participate in PISA which will next report in December 2023.

“Scotland’s education system already makes use of a wide range of evidence on achievement, assessment, progress, and learning to support students and inform parents.

“Since 2015, parents have been able to access a wide range of attainment and wider contextual data for all primary, secondary and special schools across Scotland. This information is used to ensure targeted and informed decisions are taken to strengthen our education system and identify where improvements need to be made.”