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.