Chief Inspector says GCSEs need overhauling – but justified this by repeating discredited data

Janet Downs's picture
Rejecting the suggestion that the June GCSE 2012 exams should be regraded, Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, said the time was right for an overhaul of GCSEs to ensure they were “rigorous”.

Wilshaw told the Andrew Marr show that "One of the worries I have and I know other people have, is that our standards are falling in relation to other countries in the rest of the world. English is the world language, it is the business language. We know that we have fallen from 7th in reading to 25th in the world. In maths from 7th to 28th. That is not good enough.”

No, it isn’t good enough that the Chief Inspector for Schools should repeat discredited information. Sir Michael holds an extremely responsible position and he should, therefore, have the most up-to-date and relevant information at his finger tips. And yet he has regurgitated the “plummeting down league tables” rhetoric which, as regular Local Schools Network readers will know, can only be justified by using the 2000 figures for the PISA international tests. And these figures have been found to be faulty by the organisation that published them in the first place. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which sets and administers the three-yearly PISA tests has warned that the figures are flawed and could not be used for comparison.

Sir Michael is, however, right that GCSEs need overhauling. But tinkering with the present system which Mr Gove proposes is not enough. If Sir Michael and Mr Gove are serious that the exam system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland needs to match the world’s best then they should consider scrapping GCSEs at 16 and bringing in a graduation diploma at age 18. This is the system in most of the rest of the world (see FAQs above for details of the exam systems in other countries).

The Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that England is out-of-step with most other countries: “England is actually rather unusual in having a high stakes school leaving exam at 16. Most countries focus on exams when most young people in fact leave school at 17 or 18. The system in England looks rather like a left over from a time when the majority of young people did expect to leave school at 16. Now that the vast majority stay on past 16 to do further qualifications there must be some question over the role of a set of exams which may signal to some that leaving at 16 is expected, particularly in the context of government policy to raise the “education participation age” to 18.”

In March 2010 Sir Michael Wilshaw was a member of the review group for the Sir Richard Sykes Review of Examinations. This assessment was commissioned by Michael Gove when he was Shadow Secretary of State for Education. The Review commented that “nowhere in the world requires formal external assessment to the extent currently practised in England”.

Michael Gove seems to have missed this statement. Sir Michael seems to have forgotten it.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 18:02

In current RSA journal there is an article by Sir Michael in which he writes about how effective Ofsted is in promoting diversity in styles of teaching.

The fact that Ofsted employs all the practices know to reduce diversity in practice and is moving rapidly further in this direction clearly bothers him not a jot as he pens this guff.

It would be fair to say that the fellows are not impressed by the publication of this article in their journal.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 21:24

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which sets and administers the three-yearly PISA tests has warned that the figures are flawed ..

The figures that are supposed to be flawed are the ones that had us at 4th, 7th and 8th in the tables back in the day.

I don't think anyone disputes the more recent figures which have us at 23rd, 25th and so on.

Sir Michael's point about the economic dangers of being so far down the table do not need any comparisons to be made or plummeting to be proved. Our actual 2009 placements are all that's needed.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 03/09/2012 - 22:04

Do you understand what PISA results measure Ricky?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 08:00

Yes I do, thank you Rebecca.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 08:26

Rebecca - I'm astonished that politicians like Gove and commentators who purport to be experts on educational matters actually ignore what PISA 2009 results showed. Firstly, as we know, UK hasn't plummeted down international league tables. Even when Andreas Schleicher (OECD) was asked about UK performance during the last ten years he said little had changed. UK was an "average performer" (in PISA tests).

PISA 2009 confirmed that UK performance in reading and maths was at the OECD average while performance in science was above-average (something which Gove, Gibb and now even Wilshaw seem to have not noticed). And the actual marks (as opposed to ranking position) hardly changed between 2006 and 2009 (the change was statistically insignificant).

These politicians and commentators also seem to have missed the Trends in Maths and Science Survey 2007 (TIMSS) which, although smaller than PISA, showed that English pupils outperformed European rivals in maths and science at ages 10 and 14. NFER wrote that English pupils were "among the best in the world at both maths and science".

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 08:11

What do they measure then Ricky? How are they different to TIMSS and how does teaching need to be adjusted to enhance PISA results?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 08:36

I'm astonished that they harp on and on about PISA results while shutting down the initiatives which will improve them and deliberately moving English education back towards a 1950s education and a clear emphasis on TIMSS only rather than PISA and TIMSS together.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:02

PISA measures how well 15 year-olds apply their knowledge and skills in reading, maths and science in real-world contexts designed to assess how well equipped they are to participate in society.

The reading test looks at such things as access and retrieval, integration and interpretation, reflection and evaluation. The maths test looks at capacity to analyse, reason and solve problems in a variety of fairly practical situations. The science assessment tests scientific knowledge, awareness of the part science plays in shaping the world and the degree of understanding students have of scientific modes of thought, criteria and so on.

An advanced country like the UK, with high levels of economic development, social capital etc should be performing near the top of the scale and it gives grounds for concern that we are closer to the OECD average. This threatens a competitive disadvantage in attracting inward investment in a globalized economy.

In terms of what we need to do: we need to secure better teachers (preferably from the top 10-15% of graduates); we need to reduce the burdens on teachers (over-work, unnecessary activities, stress) so they can properly attend to securing student progress; we need to focus time and resources and care on socio-economically disadvantages students, ending the culture of low-expectations of which you are a prominent exemplar on this forum.

As for TIMMS - it deals with maths and science at a younger age - primary school + year 9. It throws up some odd results - e.g. no gender gap, while other attainment measures and empirical data always find one.... and generally projects a rosy picture where all is well in the garden, in striking conflict to the lived experience of all sentient beings with their eyes open.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:23

So how do you take a class of children who are used to being taught knowledge and skills and who hate being given contextualised questions that they have no idea how to start (because they're used to being in a classroom where they know which bit of knowledge or skill is being taught this lesson) and sort that situation out Ricky?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:29

Rebecca - and the astonishment goes further when commentators don't know that TIMSS measures pupils in Y5 and Y9 (ie age 10 and 14). TIMSS 2007 showed that English pupils outscored fellow Europeans at both age groups.

Alex Jones's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 08:52

PISA data and what it means isn't straightforward. Stephen Heppell has put together this very useful summary of issues with PISA
Michael Gove's critics wouldn't be unreasonable in contrasting his championing of 'rigour' and 'academic standards' with the way he uses PISA data.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 09:00

Thanks Alex.

I think you could add 'and all other evidence' to that last sentence.

Michael Dix's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 19:27

The 'fall in PISA rankings' is a political strategy. Faced with ever rising exam results, although KS2 SATs had levelled off, the Conservatives had to have a big idea with which to denigrate Labour reforms so they could introduce their own ideology. Therefore attention to the facts behind the PISA headlines is irrelevant. What you do is repeat the mantra every time you discuss education and pretty soon it becomes the incontrovertible truth, repeated by commentators and believed by much of the population. It fits wonderfully with the 'decline in schools' theory which I've been hearing all of my teaching career and has appeared regularly since state education began. TIMSS doesn't support the mantra so it is conveniently forgotten or rubbished.

The politicians are playing to their voters. I'm not sure who Mr Wilshaw is playing to at present. At a time when it is on record from politicians that we have the best generation of teachers that this country has ever had, we are being told that it's still not good enough and we've got to do better.

If there is real concern about our position compared to other countries then surely the results need putting into context. How far are we behind and is it statistically significant? How do different ability groups compare - England has always had a low attaining tail but more at the higher attainment levels - is this replicated in the PISA survey? Are the skills tested by PISA compatible with the new curriculum currently being fashioned in Whitehall ?

Of course, there are a few simple steps that would help us move up the PISA league.
Make all schools do the test and put the results in league tables - this would result in a higher emphasis on the skills tested.
Let England set the questions for the next test - countries that set the questions do better that year.
Enter the survey as local authorities - smaller jurisdictions do better.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/09/2012 - 07:41

Michael - you raise many important points about the way PISA results have been used to support the viewpoint that UK (or more precisely, England) is doing badly in international tables.

The number of countries taking PISA tests rises everytime PISA is set. This means that a seeming fall in ranking may not be a fall at all. In the case of the UK the only PISA figures which can be compared are those of 2006 and 2009 - the actual scores of UK students hardly changed, the difference was statistically insignificant. And UK students were still at the OECD average in reading and maths, and above average in science (something that Gove et al seem to have missed).

Your point about smaller jurisdictions is important. When Gove talks about China outperforming UK he's really talking about the untypical jurisdictions of Shanghai and Hong Kong. The other two Chinese jurisdictions, Macao and Tapei, scored about the same or slightly less as UK pupils. And it's not known whether pupils in some remote rural jurisdiction in China would do anywhere near as well.

Stevemayman's picture
Sun, 24/11/2013 - 16:25

Michael Gove seems to have dedicated more time and attention to Simon Cowell than to the harmful product of his OECD Pisa friend, Andreas Schleicher.
On the BBC Andrew Marr Show of November 24, 2013
Marr asked Gove directly about the forthcoming Pisa rankings for England. Mr Gove seems to have missed the Times Educational Supplement of July 19 and July 26th 2013 which described Pisa rankings as "utterly useless" and "fundamentally flawed"

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