Scotland's pupils are among the best readers in the western world

Education in Scotland is making real achievements. Unionist politicians and media exaggerate the difference between English and Scottish pupils in the international comparison table PISA. UK politicians brag that English children are “among the best readers in the western world” - well so are Scots as there is only half a percentage difference in the two countries’ scores. 

The attainment and life chances of the most deprived youngsters are improving significantly and they have a much better chance of attending university than their English counterparts. Scotland has a much more generous provision of free school meals. It is rolling out daily hot, nutritious meals to every child under 10 and to many more over that age than is the case in England. Over time, research suggests this will pay off in better educational outcomes when these children reach 18. From the start of 2024, Scottish teachers are paid significantly more than anywhere else in the UK except central London, which over time also should lead to better staff retention and performance.

However, Westminster is not doing Scottish education any favours. After Brexit, it became much harder for students, teachers or researchers to come from or travel to Europe. The UK government forbids Scotland from offering the post-study work visas that many countries use to attract the brightest young people. And now, it is threatening to choke off the supply of international students who contribute so much to Scotland’s world-class university sector.  


#1 Unionist commentators split hairs over PISA 

Unionist commentators exaggerate the differences between Scotland and England on the international comparison table PISA. For instance, when it comes to reading, England’s children in the most recent tests scored 496 while Scotland’s scored 493. That is 0.6% difference, well within the margins of statistical error. Both countries are above the OECD average - and both are behind Ireland, which scored 516. UK government ministers like to trot out the prepared line that “England’s children are now among the best readers in the western world” - this is also true of Scotland. Both countries are above the OECD average of 476, and in the top 15 in the Pisa Table.

In science and maths, Scotland’s scores for all students were almost exactly the same as the OECD average - and in both cases, second-generation immigrants scored significantly higher than the general population. Attracting more immigrants will positively affect PISA scores

But the difference is not as large as is often alleged. In science and maths, Scotland is currently behind England by about 5%, and about level with many European countries. The country that tops the tables is China - but critics of the Chinese education system say it does not encourage creativity and problem-solving.  

There is more to an education system than PISA - Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence puts more emphasis on the arts and Scottish schools offer free music tuition. In 2018, on a separate PISA measure of global competence - the ability to understand complex issues and make a constructive plan of action - Scottish students scored among the highest in the world, with only 2 countries achieving a higher score than Scotland. 


#2 The attainment gap - life chances for the most deprived are significantly better in Scotland

The Unionist media is also obsessed with the ‘attainment gap” - the statistical difference between the most and least deprived students, which is affected by poverty and the effects of deprivation. Over time the Scottish child payment which has lifted 100,000 children out of poverty will help with that. Ending the two-child benefit cap which damages the life chances of children in larger families would also help - but both major UK parties are committed to keeping this cruel distinction. 

Despite the challenges, Scotland has seen a big improvement in the life chances of those in the most disadvantaged 20%. Their level of attainment is rising and they are almost twice as likely to attend university as the equivalent group in England. 

In Scotland, more than 16% of students from the most deprived cohort went to university in 2023, and the sector is likely to reach a challenging 20% target by 2030.  In England, only 11% of the lowest cohort on the Multiple Equality Measure go to university and that has been stagnant for some time. 

According to the OECD, Scotland has been at the forefront of curriculum reform and its approach has been “inspiring and widely supported”. There has been a record increase in the proportion of primary school pupils achieving the expected levels of literacy up almost 4 per cent, and numeracy, which was up 3 per cent to 78%. 

Advances are also now being seen at the highest level which is called SQF level 7, equivalent to Advanced Higher. In 2010 less than 5% of those in the most disadvantaged 20% achieved this level of qualification, but by 2022, the figure was more than 10%, doubling in just over a decade. 

#3 Free school meals provision for all under 10s

Scotland has the most comprehensive free school meal offer of any nation in the UK, with every child in state school between primary one and five getting a free hot meal throughout the year. This is estimated to save families £400 per child per year.

In England, free school meals are only provided for children from primary one to three. A total of 800,000 children in England are living in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals, according to research from the Food Foundation

After the age of eight in England, access to free school meals is very tightly controlled.  In contrast in Scotland, by 2025, all children in primary 6 and 7 in receipt of the Scottish Child Payment will also receive free school meals and eventually all primary pupils will receive this. Scotland has a long way to go but is making a difference - more than half of the school roll in Scotland have free school meals already compared to under a quarter in England. 

There is a lot of evidence that preventing hunger in schools contributes to better educational outcomes. Analysis from PwC, commissioned by the Impact for Urban Health, found that for every £1 invested in providing meals to all children in households on universal credit, £1.38 would be returned over the next 20 years through “core benefits” across social, health and educational areas.  


#4 Teachers in Scotland earn more than anywhere else in the UK

From the start of 2024, Scottish teachers started to out-earn those in the rest of the UK except central London. In Scotland, qualified teachers earn between £38,655 to £48,516. In England outside London, the range is  £30,000 to £46,525. In outer London, many teachers earn significantly less than in Scotland at  £34,514 to £51,179. In central London, the most expensive place to live in the whole of the UK, the starting salary is still lower than in Scotland. The range is £36,745 to £56,959. Teachers’ pay in Northern Ireland is the lowest in the UK at £24,137 to £41,094.

We have heard a lot in the legacy media about Glasgow City Council cutting teacher numbers because of a budget black hole. There is an issue there - teacher numbers are going to be cut in the city by 2% over the next three years. This is because the council (currently run by an SNP administration) is still dealing with the consequences of a massive equal pay claim where liabilities were allowed to accumulate for decades (under a Labour administration). In order to settle the £500 million bill in 2019, the council sold buildings which it then rents back from a private company. The cost of this has been exacerbated by inflation. Council tax has also been frozen by the Scottish Government in response to the cost of living crisis. 

In the long term, paying teachers a salary which better reflects their professional qualifications, responsibilities and expertise will allow Scottish schools to retain more staff. Higher staff retention correlates with better performance and better outcomes so eventually this move will increase attainment. 



Scots should think twice before accepting biased attacks on Scottish education from Unionist politicians and the Unionist media that parrot their claims. That does not mean there are no challenges - of course there are.  But despite that, Scotland has an education system to be proud of.  Scottish pupils' reading levels in the international rankings table PISA are virtually the same as the ones England brags about. Scottish pupils are also offered more access to music and other arts education.

Scotland also does better in terms of the attainment and life chances of the poorest and most deprived cohort. Providing free school meals to all under tens is also likely to feed into better educational outcomes. 

Scotland has chosen to raise teachers' salaries to a level more commensurate with their expertise and responsibilities. Over time this will positively impact staff retention and performance and attract more people to the profession.