UK is 6th in international education league – but wasn’t the UK supposed to be plummeting down the tables?

Janet Downs's picture
“In the last ten years, we have plummeted in the world rankings from 4th to 16th for science, 7th to 25th for literacy and 8th to 28th for maths. These are facts from which we cannot hide.” Education secretary, Michael Gove, said this in January 2011.

Since then the UK statistics watchdog has expressed “concern” about Gove’s use of this data - he disregarded warnings that the figures were faulty, he overlooked the significance of more countries entering pupils for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and ignored contradictory evidence such as the results of the Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS).

So what would happen if the results for PISA, TIMSS and another international test, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were combined and linked with a broader measure of educational attainment: literacy levels and graduation rates? The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has done just that in The Learning Curve published by Pearson.

The result? The UK was sixth behind Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. The UK was second in Europe, second in the Western world.

But before I get too carried away, there are caveats. The EIU wanted to measure the impact of education on broader consequence such as the labour market and social outcomes but found this was impossible. It found some data was missing. There’s a disclaimer - the index, called the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, is only a first step. The tables differ according to what is measured. For cognitive skills the five top countries were Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. But for educational attainment (literacy and graduation rates) the five top countries were South Korea, UK, Finland, Poland and Ireland.

So, will the Department for Education issue a press release congratulating pupils and teachers for this achievement – second in the Western world – and publicise this positive news about UK education? Sadly, there is nothing today on the DfE website. Perhaps they’ll blow up the balloons tomorrow and the cheers will reverberate throughout the land.

Or maybe the silence will be deafening.

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Andy V's picture
Tue, 27/11/2012 - 19:11

Janet, I'm afraid that as much as this does seem to be another corroboration of the fears as to how the SoS cherry picks, ignores, tip toes through his high selective use of data - show me a politician that doesn't :) - all this tends to prove is that international reports are like statistics, twistable, spinnable, and generally not to be trusted. Much like the extrapolation of findings from the data - skewable to support pretty much what the interpreter want to present.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 08:40

Andy - you're correct about how politicians distort, misrepresent and spin data for their own purposes. As Allan says below, if Gove comments on this report then he's likely to say that it vindicates his policies. Stephen Twigg did this yesterday - saying that it was because of Labour policies. Well, no it wasn't. It was the work of pupils and their teachers.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 09:40

Janet, Yes, the level of frustration with the vacuous antics and oscillations of politicians is deeply felt by many. I for one am heartily sick of it across the piece.

Allan makes an entirely reasonable supposition that it is only time before the SoS starts to skew things for his own purposes (again).

What is clear is that the uplift in outcome indicators has arisen over time and by no means since the 2010 elections. It is also right and proper to highlight that these indicators are substantially indicated by cultural heritage and attitudes and these are simply beyond our ability and comprehension the adequately factor in let alone tangibly measure (e.g. Singapore and South Korea v Finland, Poland or the UK).

I've banged on repeatedly about this but make no apology for it. I want to see a tripartite agreement amongst our politicians to establish an educational policy and then set-up and allowed to operate independently a national group charged with implementing and assessing the impact of that policy (including driving improvement); similar to that in Finland and Canada. That national group would be answerable directly to parliament but not to any SoS for Educ. I'll kick my soap box back under the stairs now! :)

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 27/11/2012 - 20:43

Those of us who support the notion of equal access to excellent states schools, fair admissions, no selection, great teaching, great teacher training, schools being at the heart of their local communities, a wide and inclusive curriculum which not only imparts a broad knowledge but brings out the talent and raises the ability of all children have never been comfortable with the obsession of inter-school competition and judging a school virtually solely on league tables or results.

Of all the Education Secretaries of the past decades, Michael Gove has been the one who has most ruthlessly exploited results and league tables in order to frame the belief that Britain’s schools are the underdog of the world in order to drive through reforms that render schools fearful and vulnerable, thus creating the foundations for eventual privatization.

Much of the debate from the anti-“reform” lobby in Britain has been a result of their having to defend themselves against accusations of “soft bigotry”, “Trotskyites”, “enemies of promise” and a whole multitude of nonsense pumped out by the rightwing to draw attention away from the real agenda, which is to privatize and to establish a two tier system of education in which, despite the placating rhetoric, the needy and vulnerable are further sidelined in favour of the more able. Thus education policy absolutely mirrors social policy under the coalition, where the poor are demonised and further impoverished by benefit cuts and unemployment.

And even though we don’t support league tables and statistical comparisons, we have had to use Gove’s own weapons against him to show that his new schools don’t outperform the old, that charter school success is a myth, that he has distorted PISA findings. All this does is lead to another round of counter argument, which is basically the same old tosh about left wing incompetence, race to the bottom, celebrating failure and so on.

You can’t win when you rely so much on - and give so much importance to - the statistics of international or league tables. This race to competition, punishment, humiliation and centralisation zaps the creativity out of teaching and learning, prescribes one man’s – or one party’s - ideology without variation on each and every child, regardless of their background or ability and pushes our children more into learning by rote and learning how to pass exams, rather than instil a love of learning or curiosity about the world.

I am glad that this study shows that the state of education in Britain has not been zooming towards disaster, although I expect it will only be a matter of time before Michael Gove, with no irony or shame, will use this report to claim credit for turning schools round in just over two years of his toxic tenure at the DfE. He and Michael Wilshaw might like to be reminded that when Finland abandoned league tables and closed its schools inspectorate, its schools started to improve dramatically, helped by successive capitalist governments who nevertheless also believed in equality, closing the income gap and turning its back on the hollow concepts of “choice”, “comparison tables” and “high stakes testing”. Its time we abandoned this fetishising of competition, tables and exams and adopted a more relaxed and youth-centric way of teaching and learning to give forward in a modern world. Dumping the Ebacc and GCSEs at 16 would be a good start.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 08:44

I've got a confession - I don't like these kind of league tables despite my crowing in bold above (UK SECOND IN THE WORLD - sorry, got carried away again). It's important to keep them in perspective: after all, they only measure pupil attainment in two or three subjects although the EIU report is a bold attempt to link this data to other outcomes like literacy. There's always a whiff of nationalistic fervour which hints at a country wanting to be top dog.

What I would really like to see is the majority of countries clustered tightly around an average which indicated high literacy and graduation rates - then we'd know that all the children in the world were receiving the education they all deserve.

That said, Gove and his supporters constantly use PISA data (misrepresenting it as we have seen) to underpin his policies. If that's the weapon of their choice then we can use the same weapon but without misrepresenting it (hence my links so that people can judge for themselves if I'm doing that or let me know if I've misunderstood a point).

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 09:46

Oooops - that should have read: UK SECOND IN THE WESTERN WORLD (or UK SIXTH IN THE WORLD). Sorry - the temptation to crow returned. However, I have quickly corrected my error - which is more than some people do. I'll join Andy on the soapbox:

"It's taken two years for Gove's use of the flawed 2000 PISA figures for the UK to be rumbled. Yet still there's been no retraction from him, no apology."

Adrian Elliott's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 10:33

Even the DfE's comment on this report consists entirely of a list of things they are supposedly doing to improve schools; no hint of congratulation to teachers for maybe doing even a slightly better job than had been suggested. What a truly charmless bunch!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 11:11

Adrian - I think the comments by DfE spokesman/spokeswoman are replayed on a loop:

"We are driving up standards right across the board by bringing the best graduates into teaching, developing a world-class curriculum, and restoring order to our classrooms."

While it's true that high-performing countries like Finland recruit teachers from the very best graduates, it's also true that the teaching profession is highly regarded whereas teachers in England are constantly criticised. The "world-class curriculum" is out-of-step with most of the rest of the world, and the bit about "restoring order in the classroom" implies that all schools in England were anarchic before Gove waved his magic wand.

"We are driving forward the academies and free schools programmes with more than half of secondary schools now enjoying academy status."

Academy status doesn't automatically raise results - they do no better than similar schools (see Henry's faq above).

"...we will be introducing a new, far more rigorous examination system."

Again, it will be out-of-step with other countries (see faq above) where graduation takes place at 18 often through a variety of routes.

"We are... we are... we will be...." again and again and again - must be a recording. It's played every time the DfE is asked for a comment - doesn't matter what the context is.

"We are... we are... we will be..."

Perhaps they should start chanting it in Latin - it would make a change.

Michael Dix's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 21:25

The DfE is on automatic pilot. It appears that no matter what question it is asked it just regurgitates the official government mantra. It happens every time. There is no point in asking them anything. I have written in the past and get rubbish back. Whenever I write to Ofsted with a concern or question I get a properly thought through reply, usually from an HMI, which, even if I don't always agree with the reply, show they have considered what I have written.

James Blythe's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 08:13

I doubt they will be ordering 'trebles all round' anywhere in the state educational sector as a result of this EIU report.

It is a splendid, common sense, accessible report, making it all too clear how difficult it is to draw conclusions from different educational systems.

'The understanding of what inputs lead to the best educational outcomes is still basic.... remains an art, and much of what engenders quality is difficult to quantify......

“I don’t detect many similarities other than high standards, solid curriculum, competent teachers and a supportive culture that is education-minded.” Other research might point to the importance of school choice and school autonomy......

“Local countries and institutions are extraordinarily important. Each country has its own system. It is difficult to take any of the specifics and apply them elsewhere.”

In seeking those solutions, officials also need a dose of humility, remembering that formal education can do only so much......

“a lot of these things [determinants of academic success] are not amenable to government action. They are really within families and how society operates.” the differing approaches of Finland and South Korea show, there are diverse paths to success.'

As the report points out, successful education systems seem to march hand in hand with less desirable outcomes.

'The high expectations and pressure mean that studies regularly find South Korean teenagers to be the least happy in the OECD. In Finland, the egalitarian system seems less effective at helping highly talented students to perform to the best of their ability than at making sure average results are high.'

This is borne out in other highly respected forums.

The OECD report on child well being across the OECD puts Finland in first place for educational wellbeing, 18th place for quality of school life and 26th place for risk behaviours. Britain's children rank 4th for quality of school life but 22nd for educational well being and 28th for risk behaviour.

Its all very complex, then.

Two factors stand out

'There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results.......Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement......

The two societies are highly supportive of both the school system itself and of education in general........what may set Finland and South Korea apart is that in both, ideas about education have also been shaped by a significant underlying moral purpose.'

In a country as increasingly diverse as Britain, there are two chances of a nation of over 60 million uniting around a significant underlying moral purpose and one of those is Bob Hope.

Maybe just best, then, to have an election and vote in a coalition that has to make reforms based on cross party consensus.

After all, if no-one has a clue what reforms are likely to work, as this EIU report suggests, then far better just to move forward with those reforms on which the majority view agrees?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 08:55

James - thanks for underlining the point made constantly throughout most of the report (with a couple of exceptions which I'll deal with in a separate thread at a later date) ie that there isn't a "magic bullet" to raising standards.

The EIU had tried to link education with social outcomes but found it impossible - as you say, the overall well-being of UK school children is low. And South Korea has the highest suicide rate among students - so being in a demanding culture with very high expectations linked with perceptions of shame has a cost.

You're correct about building a consensus - that's what Finland did. It took them 40 years and was not as a result of a high profile intervention by a politician or government. UK education, on the other hand, has been subjected to central political interference for decades.

Sirkku Nikamaa-Berg's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 10:49

Allan, I fully agree with what you say in your thoughtful comment, especially the last sentence. It is formulated like this: "Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly." Education must be future oriented.
Pedagogical freedom and trust in teachers' skills and professional responsibility is illusory in a system that repeatedly tests the "achievement".

You may have noticed that Sweden, so often referred to by Mr Gove, was in 21st place in the comparison.

James Blythe's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 16:25

It's a pity to mention Mr Gove and Sweden among so much interesting and useful comment, particularly as Sweden is the top performing country across the board in the OECD child wellbeing index with the least child risk behaviour of any OECD country.

Mr Gove's reforms are based on cross party consensus that is about as close as we are ever going to get in this country to the unity of purpose evident in the educational sector of Finland.

My favourite quote from the report is as good a summing up of the education conundrum as any:

'education remains an art, and much of what engenders quality is difficult to quantify'

The report also makes the telling point:

'If education itself is so complex, teasing out its impact on broader societal phenomenon, like economic growth, is harder still.'

An excellent report. I couldn't agree more.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 19:31

James, thank you for the wonderfully focused quotes. I was, however, a tad confused by your assertion that the SoS's reforms are based on cross party consensus? I appreciate that by dint of being in coalition there is 2 party consensus but I was unaware that Labour were in agreement with the reforms. Anything you can add would be gratefully recieved.

James Blythe's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 20:35


You expect clarity from politicians in opposition?

Well, anyway, you can't beat an eyewitness account:

'Then Twigg has recently been in the news for announcing that Labour would bring in military schools – (apologies for linking to this rather loathsome piece by the loathsome Dan Hodges).

So obviously I was curious to see Twigg. Like Progress’s Richard Angell, he seemed pleasant and reasonable and like Angell, he was very aware of potential hostility from the assembled audience of Holborn & St Pancras CLP. He was polite and thoughtful about selection, the charitable status of private schools, academies, Gove, the school leaving age – you name it.

But what did he actually say? It was quite hard to discern any policy in amongst his reasonable words – in fact his stated position was a policy of non policy. Which seems a crazy way of opposing a zealot like Gove, who churns out bizarre educational ideas on a daily basis.'

Ms. Millar was there, so maybe she can help you out.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 28/11/2012 - 21:12

Thanks James.

So to borrow from Mr Milliband (Ed that is) Labour's education policy under Twigg is 'sleep walking' into Govianism ... ;)

David Hartley's picture
Mon, 25/03/2013 - 20:33

"The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has done just that in The Learning Curve published by Pearson".

The publication belongs to The Economist Group, half of which is owned by Pearson PLC via Financial Times.

You have to remember that a lot of the profits of Pearson come from educational course books and they own Edexcel they have a vested interest in making certain that education in Britain is represented as doing well be sure of the impatiality of your sources befor you believe them to know the accuracy of a stat you need to be shown not just the result but how it was calculated different calculation methods all legitimate but some inappropriate for the data render different results.

I have worked in FE for a long time and I have seen the standards fall there and not just a bit very little work is done but results have never been better explain that to me 99% qualification success rates for classes were 100% can never remember to arrive with a pen at level 3 diploma and extended diploma this is the equivalent of AS & A2 students supposedly.

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