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Blog - PISA

Wednesday 4 December 2013

The headteacher’s blog is like the number 11 bus: you wait for ages then two come at once! As I spent a large part of Monday 2nd December, discussing the 2012 PISA results, which hit the headlines on Tuesday, I thought I would make a few points about them that are predictably being missed by the coverage in the mainstream media.

The BBC interviewer I spoke to on Monday opened her questions with one about the “PISA rankings”. In fact, PISA is a lot more than a series of league tables or ‘rankings’, and it is misleading and unfortunate that this aspect is focussed on so heavily by the media. In fact, in the 2012 tests, the UK’s position is almost completely unchanged in relative and absolute terms in comparison with 2009. Moreover, it is far too early to deduce any impact of current government policies from these tests – as Andreas Schleicher, the head of the OECD’s education work, and therefore of PISA, noted today, we are at least three years too early for that.

There are definite good news stories in the results, ignored of course in the mainstream media. For example, behaviour, discipline and attitudes to schooling are largely very positive in the UK compared with similar countries. Our students like school, and behave well.  All developed countries have higher immigrant populations than they did, but the UK is comparatively good at promoting the achievement of children of these communities compared with other countries, who do so less successfully. And in science, which was assessed in 2012 alongside the major focus of mathematics, the UK was a little above average.

However, despite these positives, we have remained roughly at the same level as last time while some other countries have soared ahead. Shanghai is now ‘off the scale’ according to Schleicher, and other East Asian countries have also continued to improve. And he is insistent that Shanghai has improved further by focussing on the achievement of its least advantaged students, and by deepening real conceptual understanding in maths.  It isn’t just about mindless drilling, he says, contrary to the stereotype.

What is it that has enabled further improvement in some countries, and what can we learn from them? Schleicher highlights some common features of improving and successful countries:

  • top of the list is an absolute belief that excellence can be achieved for all, a ‘zero tolerance of failure’ as he calls it. Those countries reject determinism either by social background or by perceived intelligence, and in some cases do not even give teachers information about prior attainment of their students for fear that it can cap expectations. We might ask ourselves some questions about the way we talk constantly about ‘bright’ children, as if there are lots who are not, and therefore can’t achieve whatever we do.
  • successful countries tend to have high levels of both independence and accountability, with transparent availability of performance data, as we do.  But they also have a clear, shared understanding of precisely what standards are being aimed for. Our turbulence in qualifications and grading makes this harder to grasp in the UK and this is certainly an area we need to resolve as a country.
  • successful countries also combine school independence both with a collaborative culture and with high levels of teacher ‘ownership’.  My guess would be that there is work to be done here too.
  • getting the right teachers, and in the right schools, is important: it isn’t so much how much money per head countries spend, but how it is spent and where it is prioritised.  And amongst developed countries successful systems tend to pay teachers at a higher level than less successful systems
  • early years education also makes a difference, especially the pre-school phase, and Schleicher commented that we were doing well as a country here in enabling a very high percentage of 3-4 year olds to access pre-school education
  • looking specifically at mathematics, the main focus in 2012, the most successful countries concentrate more than we do on developing conceptual mathematical understanding, and less than we do either on mere procedures in maths, or on maths problems which are heavily couched in language and context. This is precisely the philosophy which underpins our own approach to maths here at Bennett and it is encouraging to see it receiving this kind of endorsement.  It is important for us nationally as we reform qualifications, especially in maths – getting the content of the curriculum and the style of assessment right is critical
  • and finally, in the UK the greatest variation is within, rather than between, schools. In other words, there are too many students in relatively advantaged schools who are underachieving.  And talking of variation, the four separate ‘home nations’ were assessed in the 2012 PISA round.  Broadly three of these are very close in most respects, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, while Wales lags some way behind

PISA has a statistical tool for stripping away advantages brought by social advantage or funding levels, so that countries and sectors within countries can be compared fairly. When applied to private and state schools in the UK there is almost no difference in their performance. It is not possible to use the PISA evidence to claim that independent schools are more effective per se than maintained schools – they only appear more effective because they are better funded and because they have more advantaged students. However, Schleicher is also clear that parents do not primarily select schools on the basis of mere academic performance, but also consider factors such as school climate, ethos and safety.

There are a number of countries to watch in the future.  Among them, Vietnam deserves a special mention. When you strip away, statistically speaking, the relative poverty prevalent in Vietnam, it compares very well with the other East Asian countries who excel, but other countries with similar cultural circumstances to Vietnam, such as Thailand, are languishing far below in the tables. This might tell us that high achievement is not just culturally conditioned.  Poland is improving very rapidly indeed, but has some major issues of equity to tackle.  Estonia and Switzerland are now showing as amongst the strongest European countries, whereas Finland has declined a little in performance since the last test in 2009, especially in mathematics.

You might well be asking: what does all this matter? Do we want to be like South Korea anyway, where there are high suicide rates among students, and where excessive workloads arguably wreck the childhood of many young people?  Well, yes and no.  Parents and policy makers in the Far East do recognize the benefits of the more rounded education which countries such as Britain can offer, at our best.  The UK remains a country of real interest for educators from abroad, especially from East Asia, and we have hosted several parties of Chinese headteachers at Bennett in recent years.  This is precisely because they are interested in our approach which seems to foster creativity and enable young people to derive more enjoyment from school.

But at the same time we must be realistic about the competitive globalized world of the future.  If East Asia learns from us about areas in which we seem to do well, it certainly won’t be at the expense of their high mathematical and academic achievement.  If we can learn things from them about improving the effectiveness of education in the things which PISA measures, then we should in my view do so, and do so enthusiastically, providing we hold on to our values and resist throwing the baby out with the bathwater.