Don’t leap to conclusions based on league tables and don’t focus so much on structures, says Sutton Trust. Address England’s socially-segregated education system instead.

Janet Downs's picture
International education league table rankings can be misleading, says Confusion in the Ranks, the latest Sutton Trust report. This is because:

1 Different countries are included in the different tables. “Put simply, a lot of the difference in ranking is down to which countries are included – or choose to take part – in different surveys.”

2 Such tables exaggerate the importance of test scores. Countries with slightly different results may actually have the same level of performance.

3 Some countries do better in one test than another. This is possibly because each survey tests different aspects of literacy, numeracy and science.

Professor Alan Smithers who conducted the research said people shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on league tables. He warned that although such tables allowed education systems to be compared it was misleading to presume that league table position was entirely due to a country’s own system. This, he said, wasn’t necessarily the case.

“The superior performance of Asian pupils has been attributed to a culture of hard work and effort, the personality trait of quiet persistence, and distinctive parenting. After all, Chinese children also shine in England’s education system. There may not be a magic bullet from these countries which can be incorporated into England’s education system, and we may do better to look at those European countries that do well in PISA to learn the lessons of their success.”

The report concluded:

“But whatever England‟s ranking, there are two fundamental issues that remain. The first is that our education system is, with exception of a couple of countries, the most socially segregated in the developed world, and we need to do much more to address this. The second is that we have far fewer young people achieving the highest grades on PISA maths tests, and we need to ensure that we have more able mathematicians.”

LSN Comment: The OECD has found that the best-performing school systems tend to be those which are most equitable and don’t segregate children academically or by virtue of where they live. The Sutton Trust makes it quite clear that England’s education system is one of the most “socially segregated in the developed world”. This needs to be addressed.

The Trust recommended that England doesn’t look at high-scoring Pacific Rim countries for inspiration because they might provide “no magic bullet”. Instead, England could learn from the success of countries such as Finland or Canada.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said England needs to “improve teaching standards across the board”. This means focusing on continuing professional development for teachers already in the system and not waiting until teachers-in-training enter schools. We should “not focus so much on structures”, he said. He echoed remarks by the Academies Commission which said that a focus on structures and an avalanche of initiatives were diverting attention away from the classroom.

Finally, we need a maths equivalent of Professor Brian Cox who’s done so much to make physics exciting. And we need less interference from ministers who think that banning calculators from tests or giving no marks for “chunking” will increase mathematical understanding.

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