Schools Minister makes a speech. Somewhere. What did she say to the mystery audience?

Janet Downs's picture
Schools Minister, Elizabeth Truss, has made a speech. We know it was early December but we don’t know where. The Department for Education didn’t say. For all we know she could have been standing on a waste bin addressing the filing cabinet. So, what did this unknown audience hear?

International educational test results are useful for judging one country’s performance against another, said Truss. She didn’t quite say England was “plummeting” down rankings – that argument’s been discredited. But she used England’s relative performance in the tests* to justify policies such as English Baccalaureate Certificates, overhauling the primary curriculum and (yawn) systematic synthetic phonics.

It’s not only countries that enter these tests – some US states, Chinese and Canadian provinces take them as well. Truss believed this was a good idea and announced that England will enter jurisdictions (as these sub-national entrants are called) for PISA tests in 2015. Truss thought local authorities who enter PISA are inspirational and forward-looking. It’s unclear who’ll foot the bill – countries pay the administration costs. Perhaps central Government will pick up the tab. Council tax payers are unlikely to support such expenditure when essential services are being cut.

Truss singled out one of these jurisdictions, Florida, for commendation because its system mirrors Government policies, she said. These include grading schools on performance in core subjects (A-F in Florida) and paying teachers by results. Was Truss’s admiration confirmed by Florida’s performance in TIMSS 2011? Only in year 5 science - Florida’s score in maths (ages 10 and 14) and science at 14 was similar to England’s. So, if England needs to increase its international performance, as Truss said it must, then so must acclaimed Florida.

Truss didn’t mention the Pearson report which found the UK was 6th in the world. The charitable reason might be because the report’s been criticised*. The uncharitable one might be because the findings undermine Government propaganda. But she remembered parts of Dr Hodgen’s research at King’s College: “current students’ understanding in algebra, ratio and fractions was relatively weak”. While it's true that Dr Hodgen was seriously concerned that standards in maths hadn't risen as much as would be expected given the rise in the number of GCSE passes, he found "no evidence for significant improvement, or significant deterioration, of standards between 1976/7 and 2008". And Dr Hodgen admitted his findings were contradicted by international maths tests taken in 2007 which found that English pupils' maths ability had improved.  Truss also overlooked Dr Hodgen's findings that maths performance was significantly improved when teachers were given professional development in the use of formative assessment.  Instead, Truss said primary pupils will learn tables earlier and would be prevented from using calculators in primary maths Sats.

However, Truss acknowledged that English 10 year-old readers were among the world’s best. But she spoilt this by saying their performance “almost matched” the previous high in 2001. What she didn’t say was that the tiny difference between England’s high performance in 2001 and 2011 was statistically insignificant. Neither did she point out that of the four high performing countries in 2001 “only one, England, maintained this distinction in 2011.”

While it’s important that international test results should be kept in proportion, it would have been encouraging if the Government could have been more upbeat.

*The two international tests which released results in 2012 are Trends in Science and Maths Survey (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). For further information see faqs above How are UK pupils measured against children in other countries? and Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?

*For criticisms of Pearson report see heading The Learning Curve in faq above, Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?

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