Shattering more myths – 'Education in England and Northern Ireland has worsened over four generations'

Janet Downs's picture
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We’ve been here before. When the OECD Adults Skills Survey was published in 2013, the media seized on the fact that young adults (age 16-24) in England and Northern Ireland had the same literacy and numeracy levels as adults facing retirement. The media concluded this was because education in England and Northern Ireland had gone backwards.

But, as I explained here, the OECD said it was not “necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) … but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations”. The improvement rate in many other countries was calculated from a lower base (near illiteracy in some cases) so any improvement would be bound to be larger. At the same time, countries like South Korea have overtaken England/NI in education tests – that much was already known.

The OECD warned the Adult Skills Survey results should be used with caution because most of the 23 countries didn’t meet sampling standards and the data was ‘based on assumptions’.

It’s disturbing, therefore, to read remarks by Matthew Hancock MP, then Minister for Skills and Enterprise, in the 2014/15 report on adult literacy and numeracy by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee:

‘What the [OECD Adult Skills] Report showed was that we have been damned in England and Northern Ireland—for that is what it refers to—by a culture of low expectations and by poor quality provision that has meant that most countries in the world have gone from being behind us, in terms of capabilities, to ahead of us over four generations.’

First, 23 countries is not ‘most countries in the world’.

Second, as I’ve said above but is worth repeating: the OECD said this apparent lack of progress between young people and their elders was NOT necessarily a sign education quality in England/NI had fallen. And the OECD did not refer to low expectations or poor quality provision as Hancock implied.

Third, other international tests tell a different story: PISA shows UK 15-year-olds performing at the OECD average in reading and maths and above average in science; TIMSS shows English 10- and 14-year-olds doing relatively well in maths and science; and PIRLS shows English 10 year-olds’ reading performance rose from 17th to 10th= among 45 countries in reading (Northern Irish 10 year-olds were 5th).

The UK Statistics Watchdog* considered earlier PISA and TIMSS data (2010 and 2007 respectively) and said, ‘…it may be difficult to treat an apparent decline in secondary school pupils’ performance as “a statistically robust result”’. He advised those commenting on international test data to ‘take particular care to avoid making comparisons which could be interpreted as statistically problematic...’
Matthew Hancock ignored the OECD caveat that Adult Skills Data should be used with caution. He ignored the advice of the Statistics Watchdog not to make ‘problematic’ comparisons. Instead, he used the Adult Skills Data to claim England and Northern Ireland had been ‘damned’ by a ‘culture of low expectations and poor quality provision’. It’s odd, then, that other international tests appear to contradict this conclusion – England is not at the bottom of these more statistically robust tests as I made clear above.

That’s not say all is rosy in England’s schools. There’s too much emphasis on exam results and it’s squeezing out other important skills. The OECD warned about that in 2011. Funny how ministers turn a deaf ear to the OECD when it’s saying something they don’t want to hear. It appears OECD reports are only useful when they can be cherrypicked to make misleading comparisons. But such selective use dismisses the useful insights often contained in these reports – these, it appears, come second to promoting myths and half-truths.

NOTES: Matthew Hancock is now Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.

*Letter from Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, to David Miliband, 3 October 2012, downloadable here.

The Truth About Our Schools: Exposing the myths, exploring the evidence, an updated and extended version of our e-book School Myths: And the Evidence that Blows them Apart (no longer available), will be published by Routledge on 27 November 2015. The myth above is an extra myth debunked for free.
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