“Last month the Government published a schools white paper that so precisely addresses the key lessons of Pisa 2009 that it could easily be mistaken for a bespoke response to it.” So said Michael Gove, education secretary, in a TES
article published shortly after the publication of the 2009 PISA* results which were hailed as proof that the UK education system was failing. Headlines such as “Travesty of our ‘stagnating’ schools” appeared. These, like the Government, ignored the OECD* warning that the 2000 UK PISA** results shouldn’t be used for comparison. These, like the Government, misrepresented OECD findings.
The UK Statistics watchdog has confirmed that Gove’s use of PISA figures was dodgy
but there’s been little publicity and no official retraction. And Gove’s assertion that his Education White Paper (now law) was a “bespoke” response to PISA was a rhetorical flourish. Many policies had no obvious relationship with PISA and some were contradicted by the OECD evidence that Gove claimed had informed the Bill. Andreas Schleicher, the OECD official who runs PISA, told TES
that spending money on professional training for existing teachers would improve school performance faster than insisting on high level degrees for teacher trainees.
Gove’s claim in the White Paper that international evidence showed increased competition between schools improved performance was contradicted by the OECD which found the evidence was inconclusive (see faqs) and the best-performing school systems tended to concentrate on equity (OECD Education at a Glance 2011). The Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment
found that countries which improved their literacy results often did so because they reduced the proportion of low achievers. But there was little in the White Paper to address their needs – and Gove’s proposed exams, the EBCs, threaten to nudge low achievers out of the exam system and palm them off with a “Statement of Achievement”. He says the EBCs are intended to match the best exam systems in the world – they won’t (see faqs).
Academies and free schools would, according to Gove, raise results in all schools. But academies as a whole have not performed better
than similar non-academy schools. And the OECD warned that although academies and free schools would increase choice the policy risked having a negative effect on already disadvantaged children (OECD Economic Survey UK 2011).
Gove has set great store on his policies being underpinned by evidence but his “evidence” has been misrepresented, distorted and cherry-picked. It’s even been contradicted by the sources he quotes. Sometimes it doesn’t even exist
Gove adheres to the Goebbels principle: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
But not everyone believes the propaganda. Gove’s proposed exams have united heads in private and state schools, including academies, the CBI, representatives from the creative industries, unions, even Ofqual, in opposition
to his rushed and ill-conceived reforms. Perhaps this coalition will open eyes and ears - the emperor really does have no clothes, “bespoke” or otherwise.
*Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
**Programme for International Student Assessment. These tests are set every three years and are administered by the OECD (see faqs above).
UPDATE 9 December 2012. There is doubt about what Goebbels actually said about repeating lies often enough to become the "truth". It would be more accurate, therefore, for the sentence above to read: "Gove adheres to the principle attributed to Goebbels : “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”