As 2016 drew to a close, Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor and The Apprentice all crowned new champions, as the losers clapped to hide their misery in the side-lines. In PISA, the biggest education tournament of them all, Scotland recorded its ‘worst scores ever’ in reading, maths and science. The news seemed to shock many, but the truth is only a Christmas miracle could have saved Scotland’s PISA stats.

Literacy standards have been falling in Scotland since 2006. This downturn is evidenced by previous PISA rounds, but is also confirmed in our own SSLN data, as well as the recent teacher judgement data. Back in 2000 and 2003, Scotland was significantly ahead of the international average reading score – but this was followed by a sharp decline in 2006. Since then we have effectively been ‘treading water’, maintaining a place marginally above the international average – until now.


This dip in results is not because of anything we have changed, rather it is the fact that other countries are getting better faster than we are. When it comes to literacy, and in particular the teaching of reading, we are ‘doing what we’ve always done’, instead of ensuring our classroom practice and pedagogy is informed by the latest international research. Despite Scotland being internationally renowned for the Clackmannanshire findings on the effectiveness of systematic synthetic phonics (which has had a significant impact on policy and practice around the world and is credited with closing the gap in many schools in England) tragically, we continue to ignore the lessons from our own research. Our reading practice is led by resources; any research used is a relic of the past. (Multi-cueing, miscue analysis, running records, Reading Recovery, sight words and guessing – I’m looking at you!) If we continue to employ reading practices that are not evidence-based, our decline in reading will continue.


Despite the data, many were quick to defend CfE and attack PISA, clamouring to point out that PISA is a blunt instrument that doesn’t measure ‘what we’re really doing in schools’ or ‘what we value’.

The value of reading is indisputable. It is not an ‘optional extra’ – it is essential to access education, the curriculum and daily life, not to mention the host of benefits that reading for pleasure bestows. The effects of illiteracy and poor reading on educational outcomes, life choices and chances, not to mention self-esteem and well-being are well documented.

I want our children to have it all. The problem-solving, the creativity, the critical thinking. But right now we seem to be producing 21st century learners who lack necessary 20th century skills. We need to re-align the balance, re-introduce rigour to our classrooms with protected time for core teaching and learning of basic skills. We need to prioritise our way through the clutter of the curriculum and realise that teaching cannot be carried out entirely through games, group work and discovery learning.

We need to stop licking our wounds, stop complaining about the ‘injustices’ of PISA and testing and take decisive action to remedy our reading practices to ensure they are research-informed. Our children are waiting; they’re the losers on the side-lines and that’s the real injustice.


A much better, edited version of this post was published in TESS on 27th January 2017 under the title Stop complaining about the ‘injustices’ of Pisa



The Winner Takes It All
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3 thoughts on “The Winner Takes It All

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  • March 11, 2017 at 10:55 am

    One comment. Why is Scotland not getting angry about this state of affairs? Is nobody/group/political party pushing for SSP in Scotland?

    • March 11, 2017 at 11:21 am

      I have written to my MSP, the previous education secretary and the GTCS (General Teaching Council for Scotland). My letters just get passed to Education Scotland and I recieve replies along the lines of ‘it is our understanding that most schools in Scotland use some form of phonics’.

      I did manage to make contact with someone ‘on the inside’, who very kindly attended my phonics training. Sadly, their conclusion was that they agreed with me on the need for better ITE, but did not agree that SSP specifically was the answer. As they ‘listen to many people’s views… such as Professor Sue Ellis…’

      For the time being, I am focussing on trying to raise awareness through occasional article and blogs – and through my training, I’m attempting to convert one school – or even one teacher – at a time.

      Teachers are far more open to the research and to improving practice. Sadly, those ‘in power’ who are able to make widespread change happen, are often choosing to be wilfully ignorant of the research. I feel I am fighting a battle I cannot possibly win.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. 😀


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