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Standardised Test Scores and League Tables Fail to Tell the Whole Story

07 Dec 2023
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Carol Chandler-Thompson, Head, St George’s School, Edinburgh

Opinion article featured in the 6 December 2023

Our Head, Carol Chandler-Thompson, recently discussed issues surrounding the recent PISA scores with the Scotsman, click to read the full article in the Scotsman Scotland's Pisa education rankings: Gender stereotypes are one reason why Scotland fared so badly – Carol Chandler-Thompson, St George's School (

Standardised test scores and league tables fail to tell the whole story. Some have blamed disappointing PISA scores in maths and STEM in Scotland on the Curriculum for Excellence, but what these figures do not capture is the disparity between boys and girls in these key subjects.

The PISA tests are a way of comparing the academic performance of students in 81 different countries around the world. Scottish students scored close to average for maths and science, and this causing much hand-wringing and lamentation. But there is an obvious way to improve our rankings in international league tables: address the disparity between girls and boys in maths and STEM subjects.

Only 1 in 5 students taking degrees in engineering, technology and computing are women. A University of Cambridge study[1] found that only 1 in 10 electrical and computer engineering professors are women across Britain, while men hold more than 4 in 5 of the posts in physics, maths and chemistry at Cambridge. Scotland would dramatically improve its performance if stereotypes around these subjects were addressed. The 2017 Scottish Government STEM strategy[2] highlighted the need for this focus. Some progress has been made, but there remain important obstacles, not least the attractiveness of teaching as a profession to STEM experts. In the government’s 2021 review of progress, it reported two male physics teachers to every female. We need to be finding more flexible ways to enable women who have worked in other STEM fields to make the move into teaching, with imaginative, school-based routes to qualification. The old adage, ‘you need to see it to be it’ is true.

In contrast, it is well known that the take up of STEM subjects in all-girls’ schools is particularly strong. Here at St George’s nearly 40% of the courses chosen by Upper Sixth students were in a STEM subject area, and over half of students choose to take maths in Upper Sixth this year. In comparison, in 2023, nationally 840 girls achieved an A grade in Physics, compared to 1885 boys.[3] I know that’s not because boys are twice as good at physics or twice as bright. We need to inspire girls to consider maths and STEM by showing them the exciting side of these subjects through competitions in satellite and space industry design, robotics and artificial intelligence. We need female role models in school, talking about their experiences in industry and providing encouragement and inspiration. Female students’ perceptions of many STEM based careers is that of a very male environment. Multiple initiatives such as Dresscode, Scottish Women in Technology (SWIT) and Women Who Code all aim to inspire women to choose STEM-based careers. However, without continued and concerted efforts to support more women and young girls into digital education for example, there will not be enough women entering digital roles to fill the 15,600 digital tech workers that are needed each year.

So we have some interesting data to digest this week. If looking at educational league tables, always consider the broader context. Scotland could overtake not only its UK counterparts but also international ones if it more decisively addressed the longstanding stereotypes around STEM subjects and gave more girls the skills they will need to influence a rapidly evolving technological world.

[1] Women in STEM Festival | Murray Edwards College - University of Cambridge

[2] STEM education and training - Science and research - (

[3] Attainment Statistics - SQA

For a more detailed look at League Tables read our Head's feature article Learning our Times Tables

Carol Chandler-Thompson


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