Declining scores for Scottish pupils in maths and science can plausibly be blamed on Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), according to a major report.

The study from the Institute for Government (IfG) says results for the two subjects in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are lower than in 2006, despite a claim in the SNP’s 2011 manifesto that the drop had been “halted”.

It also notes that the fall in performance had come even though spending per pupil is higher north of the Border than in other parts of the UK.

The Scottish Government stressed reading scores in the 2018 PISA tests were up sharply on 2015, adding that a major review would aid understanding of curricular design and help identify areas for improvement.

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But the IfG report, called Devolved Public Services: The NHS, Schools, and Social Care in the Four Nations, says: “The fall in Scottish maths and science PISA scores after 2012 may be the result of the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence – the biggest single change in Scottish education policy during this period.

“A 2015 OECD review of the Scottish curriculum found weaknesses in maths and science, and concluded that there had been a significant decline in attainment while the Curriculum for Excellence was implemented – a conclusion corroborated by reliable sources.”

The report acknowledges that the CfE “story” after 2015 is “more complicated”.

It says the decline in Scottish PISA scores after 2012 was “not huge” and adds that falls in maths and science between 2015 and 2018 were “not statistically significant”.

HeraldScotland: Education Secretary John Swinney.Education Secretary John Swinney.

But it also outlines a range of problems since CfE’s introduction.

“Teachers and local authorities found it difficult to implement the new curriculum: teachers had to radically rewrite courses and lesson plans while trying to prepare pupils for exams for which there were few past papers they could use to give pupils an example of the format,” the document states.

“Teachers also initially criticised the curriculum for being too vague but later overprescriptive.

“The Royal Society of Edinburgh criticised some of the government guidance produced after publication as ‘either inaccessibly long or too vague to be of much use … often produced retrospectively in response to issues as they arrive rather than being strategically planned’.”

It adds: “Whether the content of the curriculum, poor implementation, or something else entirely, the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence is a plausible factor in explaining the fall in Scottish PISA scores in maths and science after 2012.”

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Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, said that without more detailed data on the rate of implementation at individual schools, as well as PISA or other test scores, it would be impossible to say whether the curriculum was to blame for declining results.

“The fundamental problem with CfE is its lack of attention to what the report calls subject-specific knowledge,” he added.

“So the implementation was bound to be chaotic because, in the absence of clear specification of the knowledge that pupils are expected to acquire, no clear guidance could be given to teachers.

“It’s not teachers’ fault that the implementation was chaotic. Chaos is intrinsic to the very definition of CfE.”

HeraldScotland: Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University said the only "plausible" explanation for the decline in scores was Curriculum for Excellence.Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University said the only "plausible" explanation for the decline in scores was Curriculum for Excellence.

Professor Paterson said evidence from other countries indicated that a curriculum based on skills rather than knowledge would “tend to depress attainment and widen inequality – the latter mainly because children of affluent parents tend to get knowledge from sources outside school”.

He added: “We will never be able to say whether CfE has caused the decline.

“I don’t share the report’s optimism that the forthcoming OECD report might have more definite analysis to offer.

“But, in the absence of any other explanation, I think the only plausible explanation of the decline is indeed CfE.”

The Government said the PISA 2018 results showed Scotland’s score in reading was higher than in 2015 and above the OECD average, while performance in maths and science was similar to 2015 and at the OECD average.

It added that a refreshed curriculum narrative, published in 2019, had reinforced the aim of helping children and young people gain the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st century.