What if Michael Gove was right about PISA 2000?

Adrian Elliott's picture
Over the last two years Michael Gove has repeatedly argued that the supposed decline in the results of English schools in the PISA tests from 2000 to 2009 proves the need for his reforms. Contributors on this site, notably Janet Downs , have argued convincingly that the 2000 PISA figures from England were flawed and so Gove’s conclusions are equally false.

But let us suppose,just for a moment,that Gove is right and the 2000 tests were valid.

English children came seventh in literacy,eighth in maths and fourth in science. If we accept these results , as Gove and his supporters do as accurate,they show a system which was truly world class –well within the top quarter of the richest countries in the world which made up the vast majority of the PISA 2000 participants.

So what kind of education system produced these results? Let’s remember we are talking about barely a decade ago: this was no 1950s golden age. There were no more grammar schools than there are today . We had a comprehensive system which had existed for thirty years and there were no academies or free schools. Many established comprehensives , including my own, weren’t even specialist schools yet . The ‘bog standard’ comprehensive, maintained by local education authorities, reigned supreme. GCSE , seen as the harbinger of low standards by so many , had been in existence for a solid 14 years, characterised,of course by loads of course work.

Little about the educational scene of 2000 resembled the brave new world favoured now by Gove or his friend and mentor Rupert Murdoch.

Of course, if we were to suppose that the 2000 results were accurate, those of us who do not believe that state education has been a disaster area for the past fifty years have to explain why the results did fall back over the next ten years.

But equally if I were to meet Michael Gove and had the chance to put just one question to him,I would ask
“Why was English education secondary education so good in 2000?”

The reality,of course, was that the 2000 results were not accepted by the educational right. They were widely condemned by ,amongst others, Chris Woodhead and the think tank Civitas . Did Michael Gove, I wonder write anything in the Times casting doubt on them? Has anyone checked?

Certainly, too much has been made of the significance of international tests. In 2009, for example, although we came 25th in reading, the difference between England and over half of the countries above us was not statistically significant. Taking all the international tests over the past twenty years or so our performance has been at least as good as that of Germany and France – two countries with whom we are constantly unfavourably compared in the correspondence columns and websites of the national media.

One thing you can be sure of is that, just as ministers took the credit for the results in 2000 despite only having been in power for three years, Gove will use the 2012 figures to his advantage whichever way they go. If they deteriorate further it will all be the fault of Labour: on the other hand if they improve it will be due to entirely academies and free schools.

No credit at all will be given to the poor bloody infantry.
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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 11/01/2012 - 18:57

I found an article published in TES in 2004 following the UKs exclusion from the 2003 PISA tests because of technical reasons. The article said, "Perversely, our [English]obsession with assessing performance has probably contributed to our exclusion from the survey results." The article also blamed the autonomy enjoyed by English schools (that's right - in 2003 English schools had autonomy - that's something that Mr Gove says can only be achieved in 2012 via academy conversion). It was after UK exclusion in 2003 that the OECD decided to take a second look at the 2000 PISA UK data after having initially accepted it. OECD found that the 2000 UK was similarly flawed and warned that the results shouldn't be used.

The article also pointed out that the PISA tests are usually taken when English pupils are doing GCSEs. By the time the tests were eventually taken, many of the Year 11s had gone.

Interestingly, the same article said:

"In the late 1990s, Poland reformed its secondary school system, creating an extra year of comprehensive general education at age 15, rather than dividing up students between school streams after an extended primary education. This has clearly helped under-achieving 15-year-olds to catch up with their peers in other countries."


" * The most successful secondary school systems are not selective. The Pisa 2000 results showed that countries such as Germany that divide secondary children into different status schools not only perform unimpressively overall but also tend to end up with the biggest differences in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils."

So, in 2004, the OECD research found that the most successful school systems were not selective. OECD said the same thing in 2010 when the PISA results were published and again in Education at a Glance 2011. The evidence that comprehensive education systems tend to get the best results has been around for years, yet Mr Gove and his supporters refuse to acknowledge it.


Adrian Elliott's picture
Wed, 11/01/2012 - 19:30

Very interesting, Janet .

There certainly was a problem with the timing of PISA in the past for English schools. My school was randomly selected for the 2003 series. I remember getting a very sticky response from those pupils and their parents who had been picked to take part , just as they were about to start their GCSEs. They knew nothing about it until a few days before. I don't think they took the tests in a very positive frame of mind, particularly,I recall, some of the brightest girls who would be expected to do well.

The test dates were then changed for English schools to November but that meant ,of course that the English children participating are now some six months younger than those of other countries.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 12/01/2012 - 08:41

Thanks, Adrian, it's useful to have information from a teacher whose pupils actually went through the PISA testing process. I had thought, wrongly, that all students taking the PISA tests did so at the same time. However, as you point out, they don't. UK pupils are at a disadvantage because the timing of the tests clashes with GCSE exams which would be an extra burden on UK pupils at a stressful time. If PISA tests for UK pupils are postponed until November then the pupils would be tested at a younger age than pupils in other countries.

Students tested by PISA are aged between 15 years and 3 months and 16 years and 2 months at the beginning of the assessment period. It would appear, then, that UK pupils are at the lower end of the age range. So when Mr Gove says that English pupils are six months behind those from Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and so on, this could be explained by the fact that the English pupils are, in fact, about six months younger.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 12/01/2012 - 08:54

The Education Act 2011 says this about international education surveys, which would, of course, include the PISA tests:

"Power to direct participation in international surveys: The Secretary of State may direct the governing body of a community, foundation or voluntary school in England to secure that the school participates in such international education surveys as may be specified in the direction.”

If Mr Gove forces year 11 pupils to take part in the PISA 2012 tests at the usual time (ie towards the end of year 11), then there will be thousands of parents of already stressed teenagers who will be angered by this. Perhaps some of them will refuse to allow their children to take part - it would be rather difficult for Mr Gove to compel the parents to obey his directive.

Academies seem to be exempt from this enforced participation. Perhaps Mr Gove realises that insisting the academy pupils take an extra test around GCSE time could impact on their GCSE results. Academies, of course, must be seen to be getting "better" results than other state schools, so any extra burden does not have to apply to them.

2012 is going to be an interesting year.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 12/01/2012 - 09:31

Re: Maths PISA scores.

PISA tests particularly assess students' engagement with functional skills - that is skills embodied in contexts.
Look at these sample Pisa questions for example and compare them with our typical SATS/GCSE questions:
Our students are falling down at the first stage - understanding the question as a whole and managing to get started.

We have only really started to address this at secondary level since the 2007/8 curriculum came in which demanded students work on their skills of working on extended problems in contexts and the materials and central programs of training (in particular Bowland) were developed to develop teachers' skills.

In my opinion we only touched on part of it. It's not just about being able to do applied problems, it's about students being able to 'see' the primitive structures of maths and build their own strategies on solid structural and axiomatic foundations. The main research (e.g. LiPing Ma's and the TIMSS video studies) coming out of China and Japan back this up. I've written about how I taught students to see these structures in my classroom here http://mathseducationandallthat.blogspot.com/2011/05/how-do-chinese-do-i... and in subsequent posts and have explored this and related issues in other articles and writing.

It scares the heck out of me that the academics of education are being systematically ignored and labelled as being ignorant and self-interested by this government and that policy is being dominated by people with very deeply ignorant ideas that you would never find considered by people with substantial experience in education combined with an MA.

Gove is getting rid of the 2007 curriculum which was addressing the PISA results issue and demanding a return to knowledge based teaching - which will clearly make them worse. He has completely sidelined the representative and consultative bodies who understand what they're talking about them and replaced them with the opinions of people who haven't a clue. And he's systematically and relentlessly blaming teachers and attacking anyone who criticises his policies in unpleasant and deeply ignorant ways.

The saddest thing for me is that I can see his policies have emerged from 'London bubble ignorance and personal hubris'. But the more he attacks people the more they are having to decide whether he is just deeply ignorant or whether he has sinister ulterior motives. And the more people who have to decide that the more will draw the latter conclusions and the more rapidly this country is heading back towards the alienation and hatred of government of the 1980s. Michael Gove may have been tucked away in his posh private school wearing his boater but I certainly wasn't and I thing about what could come with deeply rooted fear.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 13/01/2012 - 12:51

Rebecca maybe you could help me understand this more, since I think my GCSE maths lessons and exam included stuff like this over 20 years ago. Is it the case that teachers can't use such kinds of material right now? Even if the curriculum changes what will stop teachers using such material?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/01/2012 - 19:59

20 years ago puts you in that window between the introduction of GCSEs and the beginning of the cultural revolution Ben, so yes you would probably have done that kind of thing, along with coursework you weren't told what to do step-by-step maybe?

And when the National Curriclum and the Strategy were introduced they were supposed to be only for the failing schools - those which were doing a better job didn't have to use them or at least so we were told. Nobody pretends that was ever actually true now although they insisted it was at the time.

Because if you taught in ways which deviated from the strategy, there was a good chance Ofsted woudn't get it. So you were likely to be labelled 'satisfactory' which we are now all clear means not good enough but at the time was clearly understood to mean either 'okay' or 'Ofsted aren't really sure what's going on here but can clearly see there aren't any problems'.

And if you didn't teach entirely to the test this was even more likely as your students' learning might not be perfectly tailored to the test in which case Ofsted would be in like a flash to find their required quota of failing teachers, which so often came from those teachers who were using non-Ofsted-proof methodologies which were the strong ones for preparing students for these kinds of questions.

So we had the 2007/8 curriculum which explicitly put this stuff back in but it's been a nightmare to implement both because the issues with Ofsted and narrow high stakes league tables hadn't been addressed and also because it became apparent how deeply teachers had been deskilled by not having been teaching this stuff for years.

So the quick answer to your question is:
'the kinds of lessons where they are taught not being Ofsted-proof' and
'narrow high stakes assessment used for terrifying purposes against schools.'

Adrian Elliott's picture
Fri, 13/01/2012 - 14:48

'Academies seem to be exempt from this enforced participation'. If this is the case this is really extraordinary. The whole point about PISA is that it meant to be a representative sample. If he can compel some kinds of school to take part but not others this makes a nonsense of it.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/01/2012 - 22:38

Because we're so bad at PISA/functional skills type questions and from this summer UK GCSEs require a substantial proportion (20-40%) of questions of this type, some private schools in particular are switching to the IGCSE which has no contextualised questions to try and boost their results.

Now - what do we think the academies will do to avoid the dreaded Ofsted/league tables radar...... What would you do?

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