Humza Yousaf has refused to apologise for the SNP “destroying our once leading education system” after Scottish pupils scored record low results in reading, maths and science in an international study.
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, challenged him at First Minister’s Questions to “finally admit that the SNP’s record on schools is a national disgrace”.
Mr Ross cited experts saying it “cannot be a coincidence” that Scotland’s education system tumbling down international rankings over the past decade has coincided with the “disastrous” implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence.
Calling for the curriculum to be scrapped, he said Scottish secondary schools now rank behind Latvia in science, Estonia in reading and Lithuania in maths.
Mr Yousaf conceded the results were “poor” but emphasised the impact of Covid on Scotland’s performance.
Mr Ross said the First Minister had his “head in the sand” and was refusing to act to reform the education system.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “After 16 years, there’s no one else to blame – the First Minister must apologise to the people of Scotland for destroying our once world-leading education system.”
The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) found Scotland had dropped 18 points in maths since the tests were last administered in 2018 – the equivalent of nearly an entire year of schooling.
The score for reading plunged by 11 points, and in science it fell by seven points, below the average score among the 81 participating countries.
English pupils again outperformed their Scottish counterparts in all three areas, with the gap growing since 2018. Northern Ireland did better than Scotland in maths and science.
The global study, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also found that in maths Scotland had the widest attainment gap between the wealthiest and poorest pupils of any of the UK home nations.
This was despite Nicola Sturgeon having pledged to make it her mission to close the gulf in performance when she was first minister. The study of 700,000 15-year-olds across the world was conducted in 2022, the final calendar year of her tenure.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education director, said “structural” problems with education systems were a more important factor than Covid for the drop in performance, adding: “I think the last years have not been so great in Scotland.”
Mr Yousaf said: “Let me put it on record and let me be absolutely explicit – we do not dismiss, I do not dismiss, nor take lightly the Pisa results that have been released this week.
“We are reflecting on a poor set of results, and the education secretary will make a statement next week on the issue of literacy and numeracy and what our response is to improving those outcomes.
“There is no doubt, as the OECD makes clear in the publication, that Covid has had an impact. The OECD described it as their ‘Covid edition’.”
Mr Ross accused him of attempting to “reach for Covid as an excuse” and pointed out that “countries in East Asia, where the pandemic began, are out-performing Scotland’s education system”.
He said: “A generation of young Scots have been failed by Humza Yousaf’s party. The Scottish education system was once among the best in the world. On the SNP’s watch, our schools have plummeted down international school league tables.
“The First Minister has admitted the Pisa results were poor, but his head is in the sand over the scale of the SNP’s failures. He refuses to act.”
Mr Yousaf rejected Mr Ross’s call to scrap the Curriculum for Excellence, saying the problems predated it. He added: “Let’s not, for one set of data, suddenly dismiss the entirety of Scottish education.”